Debating the good and bad of labor-management forums

Wednesday - 10/12/2011, 11:48am EDT

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The federal labor-management forums established by President Barack Obama are building trust between employee unions and agency executives, saving money and making the government run more smoothly, federal personnel leaders told senators at a hearing Tuesday.

But mid-level managers say they should be invited to sit on the agency-level forums because they're usually the ones to implement policies.

The President revived the Clinton-era effort to bring union and agency heads together for formal discussions under the National Labor-Management Council through a 2009 executive order.

The national council lets representatives of rank-and-file government workers, mid-level managers and agency leaders hash out policy changes, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry told a Senate subcommittee with oversight of the federal workforce.

"You can identify what the weak spots are and work together on them, rather than crafting it in management's mind, unfurling it, and saying, 'This is the road,'" he said.

The national council recently drafted a framework to improve the way supervisors review employees' performances, a long-standing issue. Berry said the solution may work because of its "bottom up" approach.

The council also is developing standards by which to evaluate the labor-management forums at the agency level. Berry said there were more than 700 different local forums. They let union representatives discuss non-bargaining issues, such as technology, with agency heads.

But none of these forums include representatives of management associations, whose members are mid-grade supervisors.

"Members of management associations work closely with employees and agency leadership and are directly affected by the issues addressed in labor-management forums," Federal Managers Association president Patricia Niehaus testified. "Our associations are not notified of the forums' decisions in a timely manner despite the fact that our members are directly responsible for carrying out the decisions of the forums."

The union representing Social Security Administration employees even refused to meet with agency leaders if FMA was allowed to participate in the forum, she said in her written testimony.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) asked her why.

"The only reason that I can think of is that they would see it as another management seat at the table or a second management seat at the table, whereas we wouldn't be representing the agency but representing the management personnel who are our members," Niehaus answered.

"So it would be a matter of being outnumbered?" Johnson asked.

"Yes," she said.

Johnson asked witnesses representing federal unions to weigh in.

Unions stand out from the hundreds of other employees' groups because of their collective bargaining rights protected by law, said National Federation of Federal Employees president William Dougan.

Local labor-management forums are "where the rubber meets the road and where decisions get made that ultimately are going to impact on the need to either bargain further on those decisions or not," he said. "I believe it puts labor in a difficult place when there are parties other than labor and agency management sitting at the table."

That answer, Johnson said, confirmed his fears that unions would use the forums to press their own agenda, including more pay and benefits for members, rather than as ways to improve government operations.

The other union witness, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers president Gregory Junemann, said he first heard of the issue this morning and did not have a position.

But he had a story to show why labor-management forums saved government time and resources. The union and management of the NASA Goddard Research Center had a long-standing problem that began in the 1990s. The union had filed a grievance that became a lawsuit and dragged on.

"And they brought it up at a labor-management forum and it's done. It's resolved and it will never be brought up again," he said. "This is supposed to be solving problems and that's what it's for."

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