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Is "Fighting A Good Fight" An Effective Federal Union Strategy?

This is the fourth blog related to the use of presidential executive orders in lieu of actual legislation as it relates to federal labor-management (L-M) relations. The first blog discussed the historical use of the executive order. The second blog discussed the challenges caused by the use of the executive order as it relates to official time. The third blog focused on the changing scope of bargaining and the uncertainty it creates.

After Clinton’s and Obama’s executive orders, which expanded the scope of bargaining, many in management felt that the unions were given too much power, and as a result fought for concessions that they had not been able to get. Some that are aligned with the union’s perspective report that any attempt to reorganize in the attempt to increase quality will fail unless the employees have an equal input into the decision-making process. They further argue that the traditional L-M relationships that exist in which there is an adversarial relationship is not well-suited to change the culture because managers are reluctant to give up control.

A labor law attorney that serves in the U.S. Air Force, Major Richard Johnson, acknowledged that the concept of L-M partnership only works when both management and union are after the same things. When the goals are misaligned, conflict occurs. Depending on the attitudes involved, conflicting interests may result in an uncompromising position. Uncompromising positions typically lead to stalemate unless the matter is simply “impact and implementation” bargaining. If the matter is limited to impact and implementation, management can move forward, but the union may put up roadblocks to slow it down.

Since L-M relations are often motivated by different priorities, there is bound to be conflict. Perhaps one of the problems is that union representatives are expected to “fight the good fight.” Rightly or wrongly, union representatives were historically evaluated by their constituents by the number of ULPs, grievances, and demands to bargain that they filed (Tobias, 2004, 28). It was not important if the ULP or grievance was successful, just whether and how many were filed.

Managers dislike having to defend themselves from ULPs, whether there is merit to the complaint or not. In fact, it is one reason that relationships between unions and management are as antagonistic as they are. One manager that I worked for reported to our union counterpart, “It’s hard to develop a good relationship when you keep filing frivolous actions against me.”

In all of my dealings with my union colleagues, I have found that there will be disagreements, but there should also be trust. Making promises that one knows cannot be kept will not only hurt one’s credibility, but it will devastate trust. Trust and credibility are essential for any L-M partnership. At times, parties make promises that were made in good faith, but due to circumstances beyond their control, the agreement had to be cancelled. Trust and credibility over the life of the relationship can help weather the storms when things must be modified due to situations beyond one’s control.

Any time there are two parties trying to reach agreement on something, there will eventually be conflict. Having temporary political interference, such as partnerships and forums – or cancelling them at a whim, will not stop the inevitable conflict, but only intensify it.

The federal government has an opportunity before it. It can either do what is necessary to improve federal L-M relations by implementing legislation that provides consistency or it can continue to watch as our presidents swing the pendulum in the favored direction. W. J. Usery, a former Secretary of Labor, insisted that, “[w]e cannot afford to regress down the path of protracted labor-management conflict. Nor can we afford indecision regarding critical issues which demand attention. We must choose, instead, to travel the road of enlightened cooperation between business and labor, each depending on the other.” While the use of executive orders is an important part of the running of the country, changes to the labor-management dynamic should be legislated, and not a subject of an executive order.

The field of federal labor-management relations has multiple perspectives, including a pro-union and a pro-management perspective. It is understood that politicians want to make changes to the processes that are used in federal L-M; however, in order to best conduct the business of the agency, there must be consistency. As presidents come into office and change scope of bargaining and official time to suit their interests, what is left behind is disruption, since the next president will likely change the processes to meet his interests. In order to effectively manage the government’s operations, consistency is important. That consistency can be established by creating legislation, not by executive orders. For that reason, I believe that changes to federal L-M issues should be legislated, not the subject of an executive order. This isn’t to say that the president should be prohibited from having an impact on federal L-M, but that Congress should take action to implement a law that is fair, which would provide the consistency needed. Far too often, individual personalities get in the way of negotiating changes in a timely manner. As a chief negotiator, I was often

stonewalled by a union representative who was opposed to the intended change for personal reasons. Though it is possible to push through to completion, there is usually enough of a roadblock to delay implementation in significant ways.

Realizing that presidents will likely continue to be involved in federal L-M relations, it is imperative that managers and unions work together to build trust. Trust will form the basis for mutual cooperation and allow the relationship to weather the storms caused by executive orders. Even if Congress and the president cooperate and enact legislation impacting federal L-M relations, trust, respect, and mutual cooperation are important considerations to build and maintain effective relationships.

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