Labor-management councils putting pieces in place

Wednesday - 1/19/2011, 7:28pm EST

WFED's Jason Miller on the Federal Drive

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By Meg Beasley
Federal News Radio

The National Council on Federal Labor Relations released a memo on Wednesday providing agencies with guidance to improve dialogue with labor organizations, especially around pre-decisional involvement. The memo comes a year after President Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the council and mandating the creation of labor-management forums throughout the government.

The memo, co-authored by council chairmen John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for Management in the Office of Management and Budget, reminds agencies what the Executive Order requires and outlines steps each organization should be taking to fully implement the directive.

The Executive Order calls for "a non adversarial forum for managers, employees, and employees' union representatives to discuss government operations [to] promote satisfactory labor relations and improve the productivity and effectiveness of the federal government."

Berry and Zients agreed that while 2010 was a productive year in terms of establishing the framework for these forums, 2011 needs to be a year of action.

"2010 was largely a set up and process year," said Zeints. "We laid a lot of the ground work to now pivot in 2011 to really performance -- better involvement and better conversations."

Pre-decisional dilemma

The majority of those conversations will be around pre-decisional involvement, the main focus of the memo. Pre-decisional discussions are a source of confusion for many agencies and labor organizations. By definition, pre-decisional information is not supposed to be discussed before an agency reaches a decision. However, the Executive Order states, "Management should discuss workplace challenges and problems with labor and endeavor to develop solutions jointly, rather than advise union representatives of predetermined solutions to problems then engage in bargaining over the impact and implementation of the predetermined solutions."

The memo seeks to provide guidance around what is appropriate to talk about before decisions are made. In addition to the general understanding that pre-decisional involvement should take place to the fullest extent practicable, the memo encourages management and labor leaders to reach a mutual understanding about the most effective ways to conduct those confidential discussions.

The memo uses the annual budget process as an example of how pre-decisional involvement can be properly and effectively utilized.

Forums abound

According to the council's survey of 51 agencies, agencies have established 619 forums and are in the process of setting up another 612. The Defense Department has the most forums, with 248 functional and 498 in progress. The Department of Veterans Affairs has 173 established forums with 94 in progress, and the Homeland Security Department has 44 in place while the Department of Agriculture has 21 in place. The council expects that number to rise as they are constantly receiving additional data.

William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said that while 1,231 is a "nice" number, he wants to know what percentage of employees are actually represented in those forums.

"In DoD, we have 1,600 bargaining units," Dougan explained. "So in theory, if we had 100 percent compliance, we should have 1,600 forums, and we've got 1,200 total I guess the concern I have is that while 1,200 sounds like a large number, when you look at the number or bargaining units across the entire government, it's maybe not as good as what it sounds like on first reading."

Tim Curry, deputy associate director for Partnership and Labor at OPM, who presented the survey, said those numbers were not available and would be difficult to ascertain.

The Executive Order requires forums to be established at the level of recognition, that is, where a union has been certified as a bargaining unit's exclusive representative. The number of units varies widely with each agency and multiple units can join in a single forum.

For example, in DoD 135 of the forums are for single bargaining units, 113 are for multiple bargaining units.

One federal official at the council meeting estimated there are about 2,500 bargaining units governmentwide.

The survey also asked about early successes and barriers the forums are facing. Common examples of success included reduction in the number of formal negotiations, less time needed to bargain term agreements, improved labor - management communication and development of joint baseline assessment and agency metrics.

Agencies cited barriers as lack of available time and resources, history of relationship between labor and management and difficulty in scheduling meetings.

Some labor leaders expressed frustration with these explanations for stalled negotiations and wanted to know what options would be available in situations where talks were no longer productive.