Labor-management forums in need of some clarity

Both employee unions and agencies say certain phrases in President Obama\'s executive order creating these committees need to be better defined. VA deputy secre...

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Six agencies are kicking off seven different pilot programs to test B-1 bargaining through labor-management forums.

But one potential roadblock is emerging: how to define certain terms or phrases from President Obama’s December 2009 executive order setting up these forums.

“There is not a common understanding of what some key phrases mean and in some cases it’s impeding the effectiveness of the forums,” said Bill Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

Dougan said during Monday’s meeting of the National Council on Federal-Labor Management Relations in Washington that there are at least three or four key phrases that need to be defined.

Dougan asked the council to work on such definitions.

Jeff Neal, Homeland Security Department’s chief human capital officer, said B-1 pilots are agreed to by management and employee unions and focus on specific numbers, types and grades of positions assigned to the work and the technology used to perform the work.

“It’s things like the number of employees assigned to something,” Neal said. “A manager might say I need one employee to do this and the union may come back and say we want two employees. It will be much better. That way if there is some incident or accident, there will be someone there to back up the person doing the work.”

The council’s working group led by Scott Gould, deputy secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, will look into developing a set of common definitions.

“I do think it’s a natural part of getting teams of people together with different perspectives around a common document,” Gould said after the meeting. “The more you get into it, the more you realize, my assumption was X and yours is Y, how do we close that gap? I see a lot of opportunity here to do two things: one is to hold to our principle of decentralized implementation partners working across the table to find out what works for them in their agency, and at the same providing a little bit of extra insight and perhaps a point of departure so that the definitions we are using have more in common than apart.”

One such phrase that is causing confusion is pre-decision, said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

“Part of the problem has been that none of us started a new relationship on the executive order with a blank piece of paper so we have all this in process stuff,” Kelley said. “It’s pretty easy to focus on the in-process stuff rather than looking ahead. So for pre-decisional a lot of agencies are saying we already started this so when does it apply? They are not saying it being intentionally negative or hostile; it’s just that I think pre-decisional means the day executive order was signed, from that day forward, the executive order said pre-decisional involvement on all workplace matters. I don’t think you need much of a definition of what that means.”

Kelley, who volunteered to be a part of the working group looking at the definitions, said agencies are not focusing on the pre-decisional discussions, and instead are spending time on areas such as relationships and dispute resolution.

Council co-chairman John Berry, also director of the Office of Personnel Management, gave council members 10 days to submit phrases or terms that need to be defined.

Kelley said she hopes the document would include examples to make it easier to understand.

“How to go forward under the executive order is something we all have been struggling with,” she said.

While the definitions have not yet stalled the development and work of the Labor-Management Forums, there is some concern that they could.

In the meantime, agencies are moving out. The Defense Department will run B-1 pilots at Marine Corps Camp Pendleton and the Albany Maintenance Center. VA will run a similar pilot with the Veterans Benefits Administration and OPM will run its B-1 pilot across the entire agency.

At DHS, five separate bargaining units across FEMA are taking part in the pilot-about 1,140 total employees.

“We are using existing contracting language in FEMA,” Neal said. “A number of our FEMA collective bargaining agreements have B-1 bargaining built in to them and have for a number of years. But the FEMA organizations and unions haven’t taken advantage of that. What we are trying to do is pump up the interest in that and get them to use the existing contractor language and see what kind of results we get.”

At VA, Gould said the B-1 pilots are focused on a specific area inside VBA, standardizing the skill levels of all VA vocational rehabilitation counselors.

“This is important because of lot of the work we do in at VA is based on the judgment of that counselor,” Gould said. “We are trying to find a way to evaluate their performance and figure out how to train them going forward. We are trying to train them to a standard and measure their ability to perform at that standard.”

Gould said currently VA uses a written test that is not an effective way to measure counselor skills.

“We are turning to our union partners and saying look how can we do this better,” he said.

Berry said the departments of Labor and Treasury are negotiating with their employee unions to set up pilots so as many as nine, encompassing more than 8,000 federal employees could be running by Dec. 31.

The council’s next meeting is Oct. 6 where Berry also asked members for insight into how they would address telework and a mobile workforce during natural or man-made emergencies. Berry said this would be one step toward moving the government into a more mobile working environment all the time.

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