Officials cite progress in labor-management forums

Wednesday - 1/8/2014, 5:29pm EST

Federal-employee unions say they're having more of a voice in the agency decisionmaking process, thanks to a four-year-old directive from President Barack Obama calling for greater collaboration between labor groups and agency leadership.

Despite a slow start last year, the creation of partnerships between federal-employee unions and agency leadership — known as labor-management forums — ramped up throughout the course of 2013, according to Bill Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

"We got more established last year," he told Federal News Radio Tuesday following a panel discussion at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. "But we're still not where we need to be."

That's still an improvement over last year when many unions around this time were frustrated about the slow rollout of the forums.

The creation of labor-management forums is the cornerstone of Executive Order 13522 issued by Obama in 2009. As envisioned by the order, the forums would create a collaborative space for unions and agency management to work on improving government services, bolstering employee satisfaction and strengthening the relationship between unions and agency leaders.

Union: Forums lead to better decisions

For unions, the key part of the order is the push for what's known as predecisional involvement — setting up a process by which management and labor organizations sit down to discuss issues before they reach the level of bargaining or negotiation.

"Predecisional involvement allows labor to get in early to understand what kind of changes management is contemplating," Dougan said during the panel discussion. It also allows managers to hear unions' concerns upfront, he added.

"I think we get better decisions made," Dougan said.

The push for greater labor input in the early stages of the decisionmaking process is a significant shift. Under prior administrations, the thinking was that federal managers should manage and "people will then fall in line," said George Cohen, the former director of FMCS, who retired at the end of last year.

Still, some agencies continue to struggle with balancing that relationship.

"I think that there's a barrier that has to be overcome in many agencies that if we engage in (predecisional involvement), then labor wants to co-manage," Dougan said.

That's not the case, he said. "But we do believe there's a place for labor to have a voice."

Robin Heard, the deputy assistant secretary for administration at the Agriculture Department, said negotiating a more cooperative relationship between unions and management had been "rocky at times," particularly as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack worked to move quickly to implement his agenda, she said.

"We're trying to do better on that now," she said.

Council to meet next week

Heard's agency and others could get a boost from the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, which oversees the labor-management forums. The council, led by the heads of both the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget, is working to develop expanded guidance for agencies on the issue of predecisional guidance, according to Tim Curry, OPM deputy associate director for Partnership and Labor Relations.

"Because it's a kind of concept, while it's been a round for a while, it's never been institutionalized across the executive branch," Curry said.

The council will hold its first meeting of 2014 on Jan. 15

The meeting will also serve as a status update on agencies' progress in setting up the forums and in collecting metrics on the groups' effectiveness in improving government performance.

For example, Curry cited a partnership between the Naval Seas Systems Command and the AFL-CIO's Metal Trades Department that has dramatically improved productivity of shipyard workers.

"The workforce doesn't necessarily know how to save money, but the workforce does know how to save time," Curry said.

Dougan said metrics are important to "quiet the critics" of the labor-management forums.

The labor-management forums are a throwback to a Clinton administration initiative that called for greater levels of partnership between agencies and their unions. "But there was no way to measure their effectiveness," Dougan said. "That really has done a disservice to both labor and management when it comes to our critics being able to say, 'Well, we don't know what value do these forums and these partnership councils bring — you can't show us any data, or numbers of cost-savings.' So, I think that's the value of having these metrics."

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