Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said that preliminary results show federal labor-management partnerships are saving money at several agencies, often by helping root out inefficient or unnecessary processes. (Blair Tomlinson / Staff file photo)
Conservatives took aim Tuesday at the Obama administration's federal labor-management partnerships, calling them an unprecedented extension of unions into government business that is sure to drive up costs.
Unions and agency officials disputed those concerns at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs federal workforce subcommittee hearing. Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said that preliminary results show the partnerships are saving money at several agencies, often by helping root out inefficient or unnecessary processes.
Berry said the national partnership council has helped put together a proposal to strengthen employees' performance management. And witnesses cited a few ways labor and management have found to cut costs, though some examples predated President Obama's re-establishment of the Clinton-era partnerships.
But the objections raised by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and former OPM senior adviser George Nesterczuk could portend doom for the partnership effort if Republicans take back the White House next year.
Nesterczuk helped create the outgoing National Security Personnel System, the union-opposed performance pay system attempted at the Defense Department during the Bush administration. He blasted partnerships as "a radical escalation of the role of federal unions" and said they will politicize the civil service. Nesterczuk called on Congress to kill the program.
"Elevating these nongovernmental entities [unions] to partnership status with career managers in government undermines the perception of political neutrality that the career civil service has nurtured since its inception over a century ago," Nesterczuk said. "How is the next administration to deal with the ‘fox in the chicken coop' that the unions have come to represent?"
Nesterczuk also objected to giving unions "predecisional involvement," which he said could force agencies to consult with unions on issues such as staffing levels, equipment modernization and other budget matters.
"At a time of perhaps the most severe peacetime budgetary constraints we have ever experienced, when federal programs face cuts and employee pay has been frozen, it would not seem to be an opportune moment to launch a radical initiative that is certain to drive up the cost of governing," Nesterczuk said. "We should be streamlining government management for greater efficiency and lower cost rather than overlaying additional burdensome processes."
Johnson, the subcommittee's ranking Republican, questioned whether unions could use the partnerships to sink good ideas before they get off the ground.
Johnson also said he fears unions could use the partnerships to force agencies to offer more benefits, but Berry was quick to note that federal pay and benefits are mandated by law and out of partnerships' reach.
Pat Niehaus, national president of the Federal Managers Association, said her group has been shut out of partnership forums at the local level. She said some union officials think involving FMA representatives, in addition to agency representatives, gives management another voice on the forums to outnumber labor.