Obama administration represents change federal unions looking for



WASHINGTON -- Now that Barack Obama has clinched the election, labor organizations are looking to the future with hope that change is on the horizon.

They are ready to boost their numbers, increase federal employees' benefits, and have more of a say in federal pay systems.

"There will be a baseline for accountability in an Obama administration to correct some of the things that happened under the Bush administration," AFGE President John Gage said. "We'll work with transition teams to get voices for sanity [to lead each] of the major agencies. We've got a lot of work to do."

Obama has indicated he would foster a more cooperative environment with unions. Benefits bills that stagnated in Congress over the past few years could also see new light with a Democratic administration and Congress.

In correspondence to AFGE, the president-elect said he supports collective bargaining rights for all federal employees and that they can expect more benefits under his watch.

"I believe that it's time we stopped talking about family values and start pursuing policies that truly value families, such as paid family leave, flexible work schedules, and telework, with the federal government leading by example," he wrote.

One change unions would like to see is a boost in the government's contribution in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program from 72 percent to 80 percent. National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley also mentioned that legislation to raise the maximum age for dependents to 25 under the system could gain new life.

"We fully expect that would be in the conversation as it progresses forward," she said.

Protections against pay discrimination could also come to the forefront. Democrats introduced legislation reversing the Supreme Court's decision in Lily Ledbetter's suit against Good Year. In that case, the High Court ruled the time limit for pursuing a claim of pay discrimination begins on the date the allegedly discriminatory pay decision is made and does not begin anew with each paycheck. Obama supported the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Lily Ledbetter became a staunch supporter.

Talk of reviving the LR partnership in an Obama administration has gained muster, too. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, has introduced legislation that would require unions and management to bargain over permissive issues, but the bill was opposed by the Bush administration.

In a statement, Akaka said he would press Obama to reinstate partnerships upon taking office. Partnerships, he said, "have been proven to contribute to increased productivity, better customer service, and higher employee satisfaction."

In another endorsement of labor, Obama sponsored legislation in 2006 that would have prevented the head of the Federal Aviation Administration from changing work rules without negotiating with unions. The bill never made it out of committee, but Obama made it clear that he feels labor-management cooperation improves recruitment, retention and workforce morale.

A greater hand for labor in pay systems?

Obama also said he would revise the Department of Defense regulations on the National Security Personnel System. Unions and the Bush administration have been at odds over just about every aspect of the system since it was created. Based on conversations with DOD employees, Obama said he is concerned about the disconnect between pay and performance, forced distribution of ratings, wage suppression, and "virtual elimination" of merit consideration in promotions.

What's more, some workers who have come under NSPS have expressed a desire to unionize.

Gage vowed to use every resource the union has, including litigation, legislation and new regulations to address the issue and scale back the system.

In interviews with cyberFEDS®, union representatives did not eschew pay for performance altogether, as they have in the past. Instead, they welcomed the chance to work with management under a more sympathetic administration. The ability to negotiate pay would be a step in the right direction toward making it more market-driven, they said.

"It won't solve all problems, but it will solve some," National Federation of Federal Employees President Rick Brown said. "If [an Obama administration] wants to sit down and negotiate a pay system equitable for all federal employees ... we're willing and prepared to negotiate it. If not, have a nice day."

New York University at Goddard professor Paul Light told cyberFEDS® that unions will probably look for "various sweeteners" before they compromise with agencies on pay for performance. Incentives could include family friendly leave, more resources and training, and increasing the size of the workforce.

"What is the incentive if you don't' have the union voice in the pay-for-performance effort?" he said.

But first thing's first: unions want Obama to fund agencies so they can achieve their missions.

"Federal agencies need to be refocused on mission-critical efforts, and put aside distractions that have stymied progress in the past several years," Kelley said. "As our new president prepares to lead our country, NTEU stands ready to work with him and the congressional leadership on ways to strengthen federal agencies to help them better meet their critical missions and serve the American public."

Gage agreed.

"We're looking forward to getting a new cast of characters with better appreciation of employees," he said.


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