The Future of Federal Labor Relations

President Trump’s decision to rescind labor-management forums could cause some agencies to shift from a more cooperative labor-management relationship to one based on compliance, according to several labor-relations experts.

“You don’t have to be a prophet, soothsayer or medium to figure out what will happen – litigation and grievances will go through the roof and employees will be demoralized,” said former union official Thomas O’Keefe.

The experts all agreed that labor-management forums provided a mechanism to promote communication between labor and management, so problems and issues could be identified and addressed.

“Management has their view and perspective and rights to run the agency the way they need to, but I think it is also equally important that everyone understand that front-line employees do the day-to-day work and they have a great deal to offer,” National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon said. “When both parties take that into consideration and actively communicate and work together collaboratively, they really come up with excellent outcomes.”

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Mediator Andrew Pizzi said his fear is that without forums, agencies will return to “compliance-based relationships,” which can end up being “more adversarial” because different people will interpret the law and collective bargaining agreement differently.

So, the question to agencies and unions, Pizzi said, is: “What type of labor relations do you want?”

“Is it better to simply engage in what’s legal and required by the contract …  or to have some type of forum or meeting – whatever you call it – to sit down, discuss concerns and how to address them?” he asked.

Pizzi also worries that gains in employee engagement, as shown on the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, could be erased if employees don’t feel their opinions are being listened to by management.

“With forums or any type of collaboration, you have that communication, you have that dialogue and even if you don’t agree, you understand what’s going on,” he said.

Party-line move

  1. Douglas Whitaker, a senior attorney in the Office of the Chief Counsel at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Trump’s actions mirror those of former Republican administrations and that the “fortunes of federal labor unions rise and fall with each presidential election cycle depending upon which political party captures the White House.”

Republican administrations, Whitaker said, traditionally try to narrow the discretionary influence federal labor unions have within the workplace. But he stressed that Trump’s EO “should not be viewed as a complete reversal of any gains made within the workplace” through labor-management forums.

“Unions and agencies still have the traditional collective bargaining framework contained within the Federal Labor Relations Act that both sides may use to continue the goodwill that was created through the labor-management forums,” he said. “Whether it is during negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, a change in working conditions, or midterm proposals not included in the agreement, the opportunity presents itself in the federal workplace to meet and confer under [the law] in the same spirit of partnership that was fostered under the labor-management forums.”

Tackling real issues

Some agencies already have agreements to ensure this sort of collaboration takes place. Reardon, for example, said NTEU and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation entered into a memorandum of understanding to establish Workplace Excellence Councils.

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One example, Reardon said, is the agency noticed that a lot of professional development dollars were going unused, so the council studied data and decided to simplify the application process.

“The result was better trained employees, who were working more efficiently and more effectively,” he said. “There are examples all over the place – when agency leaders engage frontline employees and it is done in a problem-solving manner, outcomes are extremely positive.”

O’Keefe agreed, saying when agency management and union leaders meet regularly face-to-face, they forge a relationship and negotiations are less likely to get “nasty.”

“Under the forums, everyone had an idea of what was expected,” he said. “Now it will be a free for all.”

Julie Davidson
Julie Davidson is cyberFEDS® editorial director.