Tighter budgets, reorganization prompt more labor disputes

Wednesday - 6/6/2012, 5:11am EDT

Julia Akins Clark, general counsel, Federal Labor Relations Authority

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Pressure to reduce spending and make agencies more efficient is triggering an increase in labor disputes, said a representative of the Federal Labor Relations Authority Tuesday (FLRA).

The uptick comes as federal leaders attempt to reorganize the government and Congress promises to shrink budgets, said FLRA general counsel Julia Akins Clark in an interview with Federal News Radio after her presentation at the FPMI Human Capital Management Conference and Expo in Washington.

Occasionally, managers inadvertently violate the terms of collective bargaining agreements as they seek to streamline their agencies.

Clark did not say how many additional cases her agency is fielding, but most fall into two categories. "The first wave of increase is more so in the unfair labor practice arena," she said.

Feds, managers and unions may file unfair labor practice complaints, if either labor or management interferes with rights spelled out in the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute.

Julia Akins Clark, general counsel, Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA photo)

In addition to cases about unfair labor practices, Clark said the agency expects to see more complaints related to union representation, especially at the Defense Department.

"That department is home to most of the bargaining units, most of the organized federal workers," Clark said.

Buyouts cause labor disputes

The FLRA has also noticed a rise in labor dispute cases, as the government offers buyouts. A number of agencies have used financial incentives to shrink their payrolls, and thereby reduce spending.

"The employee's interest in a buyout program, of course, is that it's administered fairly and that the processes are transparent — well known to employees. And oftentimes, that interest is achieved through the collective bargaining process," Clark said. "As a result, there may disputes over the collective bargaining as it takes place and [FLRA] may called into resolve that dispute so that the buyout program can be implemented in a way that serves the management interest, the workers interest and, in the end, the public interest."

To address a growing caseload, FLRA launched a campaign to educate the workforce and unions about labor-management rules, Clark said.

"Our principle of preparations are in terms of proactively training the professionals, both on the labor and management side, that will grapple with the changes and how to implement changes in the best interest of the public," she said.

As an example, "we have a joint training program with the Department of Defense in the works right now specifically to address representation case processing," Clark said.

FLRA has challenges of its own

While FLRA addresses an increase in labor disputes involving other agencies, it has not received additional money and other resources to tackle more work.

"It is just a fact of our budget reality that we've had to deal with a greater demand and a need to rebuild lost resources with an essentially flat budget and a budget that had been cut about 40 percent in the several years before I took office," she said.

In response, FLRA cut all "headquarters-type operations to the bone," Clark said. The agency also dedicated almost all of its staffing resources to frontline employees who process dispute cases and interact directly with customers.

"Our training resources are delivered electronically, which is more time efficient and cost efficient," she said.

Additionally, the agency hopes to save money by adopting an electronic system for filing case documents. On Tuesday, FLRA launched the process for cases submitted to the Authority, which is a three member quasi-judicial body that adjudicates, among other things, complaints about unfair labor practices and union representation. In March, the agency rolled out the process for cases involving the Federal Service Impasses Panel.

E-filing will simplify the dispute case management process for both FLRA and filers "so that by the time there is an interaction with [an] agent, the agent has more complete information and is going to be better able to hit the road running in terms of any additional investigation that is required to reach a decision," Clark said.

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