Stronger unions are coming

For federal managers, the change will mean the likely return of the Clinton-era formalized labor-management partnerships between senior government officials and union leaders. Those were dissolved within weeks of the Bush administration taking power.

Many managers supported the partnerships, arguing they provide a good framework for unions and agencies to work out their differences, solve problems and find ways to make agencies more efficient.

It’s an OK thing with me because we got a lot of stuff done,” said Federal Managers Association President Darryl Perkinson, who is also a Navy shipyard manager in Norfolk, Va. “It brought us all to the table, and we got a lot of disputes settled at the lowest level possible.”

But Greg Heineman, a district manager for the Social Security Administration in Norfolk, Neb., who is also president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, worries that managers could lose some important authorities if partnerships aren’t implemented correctly.

“If we go back to the partnerships, it should be clearly defined what areas are open for partnership discussions and which areas are still management’s prerogative,” Heineman said. “Under [President Bill] Clinton, at least from the feedback we got from our members, a lot of the problem was that it wasn’t clear what the rules were.”

Heineman said unions sometimes had too much say in management decisions, such as choosing exceptional SSA employees for financial awards. SSA’s partnership allowed the American Federation of Government Employees to help decide who received awards, and Heineman said the union pushed to hand out smaller awards to more people. Managers wanted to hand out bigger awards to only the best employees, he said.

“It took the ability away from managers to reward employees doing an outstanding job, and the awards were more flat,” Heineman said.

If partnerships return, Heineman said managers will welcome the opportunity to exchange ideas with employees and unions. But he wants to make sure managers retain important authorities, such as the ability to assign work to employees as they see fit.

Obama is reportedly considering a former top union official to run the Federal Aviation Administration: Duane Woerth, former president of the Air Line Pilots Association.

If chosen, Woerth would be the first union official to run FAA, said Tom Brantley, national president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union. Labor-management relations at FAA have been dismal in recent years, often erupting into bitter fights over pay freezes for air traffic controllers, contract disputes, and hiring standards for new controllers.

Having Woerth at FAA “would be a thawing,” Brantley said. “They’d have leadership that not just understands, but appreciates, what unions do and the perspective they would bring. They’d seek out unions as a way to help the agency, rather than trying to find every way possible to avoid dealing with unions.”

But Brantley believes whoever the president-elect chooses will change the agency for the better.

Obama started earning good will from the FAA unions in 2006, after FAA imposed a contract on air traffic controllers during a bitter contract disagreement. Obama introduced legislation that would have changed the way failed contract negotiations are decided and forced the two sides to arbitration, but the bill did not pass.

“The election was a tremendous morale booster for the controller work force,” said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “This was the candidate they knew would mean hope for their future.”

Battles under Bush

The Bush administration’s relationship with unions started off rocky with the ending of the partnerships, and only got worse. Over the next several years, the White House frequently ignored unions and tried to impose curbs on collective bargaining rights as it developed pay-for-performance systems at the Defense and Homeland Security departments. Unions took to the courts and Congress to challenge those systems, with much success.

But Kelley and other union officials said Obama is already striking a different tone. In his public statements and communications with unions, Obama has strongly supported collective bargaining and pledged to appoint officials who will work with unions.

The major federal unions all endorsed Obama during the presidential campaign.

Already, Obama has promised to move on two issues important to unions: reviewing and perhaps repealing controversial pay-for-performance systems at Defense Department and Transportation Security Administration, and unionizing TSA’s airport security screeners.

Obama has made no public statements about reviving the partnerships, but unions and other observers believe a similar system will quickly be enacted.

“They were not magic wands, but in most cases, they did more good than harm,” said Richard Brown, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

Obama has pledged to review work that is now contracted out and possibly bring some work back in house, and he said he wants to hire more staff at the Social Security Administration. Those changes could mean more federal employees, many who will likely be new union members, said Paul Light, a professor of public administration at New York University.

Whither performance pay?

Light said that Bush’s hostility toward unions was a mistake that probably doomed his efforts to reform the government’s pay systems.

“They didn’t believe in the possibility that unions could be a positive force,” Light said. “But they exist. Even if you don’t like them, you have to work with them. They could have had these partners that could have helped, if they gave them a stronger voice in the decisions.”

If Obama decides to reform the government’s pay system and brings unions to the table to help craft his plans, Light said he might have more success than his predecessor.
“Clinton proved that you can work with unions and make progress on government performance,” Light said.

Obama so far has not revealed his plans, if any, for altering federal employees’ pay systems, though he has endorsed the notion that employees should be rewarded for high-performance work.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said that while he doesn’t think pay for performance should be high on the Obama administration’s agenda, he will keep an open mind.
“Whatever the president proposes, we’ll try to work with him,” Gage said. “We understand he won’t always be in lockstep with our positions, but we believe he’ll give us a fair hearing. He’s already worked with us more than the Bush administration.”

Kelley said any new pay-for-performance system should be funded well enough to properly reward all employees who meet or exceed expectations, and should be transparent, supported by employees, and have its goals tied tightly to each agency’s mission.

“It can’t just be some random way for some supervisor to distribute pay,” Kelley said. “But I absolutely would welcome the opportunity to work with the Obama administration on federal pay.”

Union vs. union

But an Obama presidency could spark new battles between unions — particularly AFGE and NTEU, the two largest federal unions — who are certain to spar over the right to represent tens of thousands of new and existing federal employees. The big prize: TSA’s 39,000-person work force, which has been barred by the Bush administration from seeking union representation. Both unions have set up local chapters to advocate for airport security screeners.
Two years ago, the two unions fought a bitter battle for the right to represent Customs and Border Protection employees at DHS. The workers joined NTEU.

“That could happen,” Kelley said. “But our first priority is getting [TSA employees] collective bargaining rights that they should have had for years.”

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