William Dougan, president of National Federation of Federal Employees, testifies before a Senate a hearing on labor-management forums in the federal government. (Alan Lessig / Staff)
2012 may be labor-management partnerships' last chance to prove their effectiveness.
President Obama in December renewed the executive order re-establishing the partnership councils, which thrived under President Clinton but were quickly killed when President George W. Bush took office.
This November's election could once again spell doom for the partnership effort.
Some Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits have criticized the partnerships as an unwarranted expansion of unions' reach into federal operations. And supporters and opponents alike agree that if Republicans retake the White House in November, the days of labor-management partnerships could be numbered.
The partnerships this year have their first opportunity to show their worth on a wide scale as agency managers and labor leaders confront how to operate in an austere budget environment.
With most agencies facing budget cuts, said Bill Dougan, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, agencies could use the partnership forums to find ways to operate more effectively. Dougan said labor leaders can help managers figure out more effective ways to get work done, or new technologies that could make their jobs easier.
"I think we've built a pretty solid foundation with these partnerships over the last few years," Dougan said. "Now that we've developed solid relationships, we're at the point now where we can sit down, roll up our sleeves and work with management in a collaborative, cooperative manner to make the changes that need to be made."
Dougan expects many discussions about how to make offices run more efficiently to take place at local partnerships scattered across the country.
"Obviously, these forums are not a panacea, but they're an important tool to engage each other in meaningful dialogue," Dougan said. "That means discussions about changes that are inevitable, that are going to happen across the government."
Dougan said that in 2012, unions will attempt to take a more active role in steering the national partnership council's direction. In the council's first two years, he said, managers have primarily driven the agenda to such issues as performance management. Dougan and other labor leaders want that to change, though he said in December that unions had not yet discussed what might be on their agenda.
"We're committed to getting together before the next meeting Jan. 18 and putting together our list of issues we'd like to work on," Dougan said.
Also early this year, a dozen federal facilities will finish pilot testing a relatively controversial concept: bargaining 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.
But it's unclear whether the pilot facilities will have enough results to show in time to submit a report to President Obama by May 1. Tim Curry, deputy associate director for partnership and labor relations at the Office of Personnel Management, said in November that most of those 12 facilities hadn't yet shown significant progress on permissive subject bargaining, and they have until March 31 to submit their final results. That will leave the national council only one month to draft, review and finalize a report to Obama, which Curry warned will present a challenge.