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Labor partnerships: Talk, but few results

Oct. 30, 2011 - 09:23AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry told a Senate panel that the labor management partnerships have brought some successes.
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry told a Senate panel that the labor management partnerships have brought some successes. (Chris Maddaloni / Staff file photo)

Nearly two years after President Obama re-established labor-management partnerships at all agencies, their record of accomplishment is thin.

Supporters can point to few instances where more dialogue between labor and management at agencies has resulted in concrete savings and improvements in how the government does business.

The Obama administration's biggest champion of the partnerships, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, says they need more time, and that he's confident they're on the right track.

"Everybody would always wish things would be faster," Berry said in an interview. "But you've got to give a tree a chance [to bear fruit]. I think this product is going to bear an extreme amount of good fruit, and good savings for the taxpayers in terms of results better service, faster service, more effective service."

But the partnerships may be running out of time.

Some Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits have blasted the partnerships as an unwarranted expansion of unions' reach into federal operations. Both supporters and opponents of partnerships agree that if Republicans were to retake the White House in next year's election, the days of labor-management partnerships in the federal sector may be numbered. There is precedent: When President George W. Bush took office in 2001, he immediately ended the labor-management partner-ships that had been in place under President Clinton.

Terry Rosen, labor relations specialist for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), fears that even a strong list of accomplishments may not be enough to save the government-wide partnership program under a new Republican president. But concrete results could help encourage some agencies to stick with partnerships on their own, as parts of the Defense and Agriculture departments did a decade ago.

At an Oct. 11 Senate panel hearing, Berry and other partnership advocates pointed to successes at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, Hawaii, and the Forest Service.

Union and management representatives at Pearl Harbor saved millions of dollars by coming up with streamlined ways to maintain and repair Navy ships. At the Forest Service, a labor-management partnership identified and eliminated unnecessary training for firefighters that had nothing to do with their jobs, saving the agency $15 million per year.

Those examples show partnerships have potential. But the Pearl Harbor effort began about five years ago, and the Forest Service negotiations happened in May 2009 seven months before Obama's December 2009 executive order that formally re-established partnerships.

At the Oct. 11 hearing, Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Scott Gould said partnerships have resulted in increased appeals of case closings at a Washington appeals management center, and a new smoking cessation program. But at the Oct. 19 meeting of the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, the top-level labor-management council overseeing Obama's partnership effort, Gould declined to further discuss specific progress the partnerships have made until it has examined all the data.

"I'm optimistic we're going to see positive results," Gould said.

Pilot projects

The partnerships also are testing a relatively controversial concept at 12 federal facilities: allowing labor representatives to bargain over so-called "permissive subjects" such as the numbers, types and grades of employees assigned to particular jobs, and the technology they can use. Such workplace decisions are typically made exclusively by managers.

Of those 12 pilot projects, only two at the Commerce Department and OPM are claiming results. Chief Financial Officer Scott Quehl said Commerce saved more than $231,000 last fiscal year by giving employees more flexibility to book cheaper flights or hotels outside of the standard travel system, provided by AdTrav. And OPM said it used its partnership pilot to replace an outdated phone system, a move that could save at least $1.5 million per year.

A third pilot, to establish a centralized case tracking system at the Agriculture Department's Office of General Counsel, was expected to start producing results this month.

But the other nine pilots aren't expected to produce results anytime soon. The Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton in California, for example, wanted to test the use of bargaining over employee assignments. But the Corps' civilian hiring freeze has stalled any reorganizations or reassignments, so no bargaining has taken place.

A pilot project at the National Credit Union Administration which concerns the overhaul of its computer systems won't wrap up until early 2012 at best. The Veterans Benefits Administration's pilot test a new skills certification program for counselors and psychologists isn't expected to be done until February or March. VA wants to roll the program out to the field by May.

And Immigration and Customs Enforcement's pilot test to hard-wire Internet access ports in immigration courts won't be evaluated until early next year.

This could present a problem for the top-level National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, which must in April submit a progress report to Obama on the pilot programs. Berry, who co-chairs the council, said he needs information on the pilots' progress by the end of the year to start distilling it into a draft report, which he wants done by February. But with a lack of hard results, it will be difficult to measure progress.

Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association and a member of the council, said she's concerned that only two of the dozen pilot programs are bargaining over the full scope of permissive subjects.

"Allowing the pilots to select only one issue could perhaps lead to instances where the bargaining is successful, but fails to show other challenges that may arise," Bonosaro said in testimony submitted to the Senate subcommittee earlier this month.

Frustration over lack of progress

Though most federal unions are, like Berry, cautioning patience, Rosen said AFGE is frustrated and disappointed that the partnership effort hasn't gained more traction. She said one of the main problems hampering partnerships is that the effort hasn't filtered down, and many front-line managers are dragging their feet on partnerships. Rosen said most agencies haven't impressed upon managers at all levels about how important it is to talk to labor, and there are no consequences if front-line managers ignore the partnerships.

"It's been slow," Rosen said. "We are finding agencies [are] in some cases outright reluctant; in other cases, they don't know how to involve the unions in mission-specific things. In some cases, we're seeing a lot of good talk at the top level, and not enough driving it down and holding managers at lower levels accountable."

Jessica Klement, government affairs director for the Federal Managers Association, disagreed that front-line managers are blocking partnerships. FMA said at the Oct. 11 hearing that the opposite is happening, and unions are standing in the way of front-line managers joining the partnership effort that now consists only of union representatives and agency leaders.

"Our folks would love to be part of the conversation, participate in the forums," Klement said.

Rosen also said she fears the partnerships haven't tried to tackle really difficult issues yet.

"What we're seeing, unfortunately, is the easy stuff, the low-hanging fruit," Rosen said. "Really getting at mission improvement has been more elusive."

Rosen said a "breakthrough moment" for fostering communication between labor and management came earlier this year, when the council formed a working group with agencies' chief human capital officers to improve performance management in the federal workforce. OPM in March originally planned to just have CHCOs come up with ways to improve how managers track and evaluate employees' performance, but labor objected and partnership council representatives were added to the effort, which ended in September.

But it remains to be seen whether that group's recommendations such as reviewing employees quarterly to create a culture of continuous feedback, improving selection of supervisors, and requiring mandatory training for managers on how to measure performance will work, or were too watered down to have a real effect. SEA, for example, expressed fear that the working group's draft proposals don't do enough to address poor performers.

Klement said partnerships haven't had enough time to be effective. Many of the 800 nationwide forums got up and running around March, she said. Some forums are at agencies that are going through collective-bargaining negotiations, she said, which strains the partnerships.

"I know of one that's only had one meeting so far," Klement said.

Some forums are at agencies where labor-management relations have hit rock bottom, especially during the George W. Bush administration.

Government and union officials have often said the partnerships have helped rebuild trust in those cases.

Rosen said agencies also have not engaged unions on workplace matters before they are decided, something called "predecisional involvement." Unions have frequently complained they are usually not made aware of workplace decisions until after they are all but final, thereby excluding important ground-level input on potential implications of workplace changes being considered.

Berry has been pressing agencies to do better by engaging unions earlier, before decisions are made. But so far, that appears not to be happening.

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