Unions frustrated by slow-roll of some labor-management forums

Thursday - 1/17/2013, 5:54am EST

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Federal News Radio incorrectly attributed comments to Mike Filler, director of the Public Services Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The quotes should be attributed to Greg Junemann, the president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

The track record of labor-management forums remains mixed nearly three years into the effort.

Union officials are growing frustrated with the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations because of the limited progress toward meeting President Barack Obama's December 2009 executive order establishing the council and forums.

"We recognize, both labor and management, that across the country we have forums that are working very effectively. We have forums that are struggling to get work done, and we have lots of cases where we haven't even gotten the forums up and running yet — they are not formed," said Bill Dougan, the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, during a council meeting in Washington Wednesday. "Until we put some energy into getting the labor management forums in those locations and across the country up and running to serve as vehicles to bring labor and management together to talk about how we save money and how we go about re-engineering processes, I'm not sure we are gaining as much as we could gain."

Bill Dougan, president, National Federation of Federal Employees

The national council created metrics during the first year to analyze the forums' impact in improving mission service delivery, employee satisfaction and engagement, and labor-management relationships.

Now, three years after the EO and a year after the council finalized the metrics, union officials are discouraged by the inconsistent progress these forums have made.

David Holway, the national president of the National Association of Government Employees, said the blame for the inconsistency of the forums can be placed on the shoulders of both union and management. But he said there isn't any real reason for the forums not making progress.

The election is over

Greg Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said he believes part of the reason for the delay has been union and federal officials dragging their feet over the past year, waiting to see the results of the presidential election.

"Now that the election is over, we expect to see results happen with these forums," Junemann said. "We want to see the forums in place and we want them to be real."

Junemann and others said as the budget tightens and the potential of sequestration cuts and a government shutdown loom larger, the forums could be playing a bigger role in helping to manage the challenges.

"The end in mind is efficiency of the government, streamlining operations where we can, cutting costs were we can," Junemann said. "The forums are vehicles to making that happen. Where they are not working, this council will do something about it."

The union representatives want the national council to put more pressure on the agencies to put the proper resources into the forums.

"Take a selected agency or department, and say, 'You are no longer recognized as a partnering agency.' Let that come out, let the press know about it and let the President know that his executive order isn't being complied with," Junemann said. "This needs to happen. People need to be taken to the woodshed a little bit. This council needs to have a bit of a stick in addition to the carrot."

Effectiveness begets accountability

He said the council was patient over the first few years, but that time is over.

"Now if we see someone isn't playing ball, isn't following the President's order, they need to be called into account publicly on that so we either need to get someone with a new attitude or change the attitude of the people who are there," Junemann said.

Federal members of the council offered a tepid response to the unions' frustrations.

Scott Gould, the deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs Department, said the council's ability to be effective depends on its ability to hold agencies accountable for meeting the requirements under the executive order.

"We will need better accountability to close the last 300 yards, as they say in the Marine Corps, to get those labor-management forums set up," Gould said. "That's a topic area where we could have very productive discussion."

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said the council also could ask the Federal Labor Relations Authority or the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to help get the forums moving in the right direction.

Berry quipped if the FLRA can help the NHL get back on the ice, labor management forums shouldn't be too hard.

Benefits are clear to PTO

Several agencies are finding real benefits from the forums.

VA, for example, has established more than 90 percent of its forums. Gould said he would like to close that final 10 percent gap in the coming year.

The Patent and Trademark Office doesn't have a formal forum with its union, the Patent Office Professional Association (POPA). But the successful engagement between the PTO, POPA and the National Treasury Employees Union has made a real difference in reducing the patent application backlog, said agency Director David Kappos.

He said PTO is using a three-layer performance-appraisal system and data to improve the efficiency of the agency's patent-approval processes.

David Kappos, director, Patent and Trademark Office

Robert Budens, the president of POPA, said there are several reasons why the labor-management relationship works.

"The first thing is it has to start at the top. The top leadership of the organization and the unions need to be willing to talk to each other. It has to come from the top management saying, 'We are going to change the way we do business,' and not sit there and say, 'It's the unions, we don't care,'" Budens said. "And the unions need to recognize the agencies can't afford to pay us a million dollars a day as much as we wish they could. We have to be willing to compromise and find good workable solutions."

Budens added PTO started the conversations early in the administration and continued to consult, collaborate and discuss the issues that are important to both labor and management over the last three-plus years.

"The fact that both management and POPA were willing to come to the table and listen to each other's interests and each other's concerns, and then work together to craft solutions that were mutually beneficial and would work for both sides," he said. "It was compromise. Nobody walks away with everything they want."

Danny Werfel, who along with Berry are the co-chairmen of the council and acting deputy director for management at OMB, said the more specifics the council can focus on around metrics, what agencies have learned, how they got there and where else this could be effective, the better the council can help other agencies reach the same level as PTO.

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