Does having unions in government make sense?

Jeff Neal, senior vice president for ICF International and former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security, says federal employee unio...

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog,, and was republished here with permission from the author.

Last week, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest union representing federal workers, celebrated its 83rd birthday. Its birthday came amid calls for curtailing collective bargaining for federal employees, reducing or eliminating due process for firing federal employees, and continuing pressure to reduce the number of federal employees.

Jeff Neal
Jeff Neal, senior vice president of ICF International.

After working in federal human resources for more than 30 years and being the senior HR official in the Defense Logistics Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, I get a lot of questions from people on both sides of the issue of collective bargaining in government. There are some very strong feelings on both sides, with some saying government is not the place for unions. Most federal unions cannot bargain over pay and benefits and striking is illegal. Opponents say unions just get in the way of management and agency operations and their tactics just serve to delay management decision-making. They argue that unions consume resources and offer few, if any, benefits.

Pro-union arguments say managers often need someone to get in the way of hasty decisions, employees need representation in matters related to grievances and disciplinary actions, and unions provide an effective means of facilitating communications between management and employees.

My experience is that unions, like the people they represent, come in a lot of flavors. I have worked with union officers who seemed hell-bent on obstructing everything, but I have also worked with union leaders who were dedicated public servants driven by interest in the mission, the employees and the people the government serves.

One of my mentors used to tell me that agencies got the union they deserved. If an agency’s managers treat employees badly, do not listen to their concerns and are abusive toward employees, they tend to generate union leaders who act the same way. When I began serving as HR director for DLA, I found that type of relationship. A few agency leaders had decided the best way to engage with the union (in this case it was AFGE Council 169) was to engage in week-long meetings with union leaders once a quarter, but to never agree on anything. Some key union leaders appeared to have the same attitude. As a result, agreements of substance were rare (and painful) and the agency operated with a collective bargaining agreement that was so out of date that it was virtually useless.

That approach was a waste of time, money, energy and credibility. I believe it was also questionable from an ethical perspective. It may not have been bad-faith bargaining, but it was certainly no-faith bargaining. No one thought it was useful, it harmed the credibility of the union and agency leadership, and it was a waste of taxpayer money. The agency was beginning a $1 billion modernization program that would affect the working conditions of thousands of employees. It was clear that the toxic relationship would get in the way of a program that was vital to the agency’s future.

My own views on organized labor were formed growing up in the coal fields of West Virginia. My father worked as a coal miner after serving in the Marine Corps, then left the mines to do auto body work. Many of my friends had fathers who were miners, and my grandfather’s younger brother died in a mining accident at the age of 17. My father grew up in Matewan, West Virginia — the epicenter of “mine wars” that accompanied the movement to unionize the mines. I admit that upbringing made me predisposed to see unions and collective bargaining as something that could be a force for good in an organization.

With that mindset and the support of the agency director and some key leaders, I decided to end the agency’s unconstructive engagement with the union and start talking seriously about what the agency and its workforce needed. Members of the union leadership team who also wanted to work together for the common interests of the agency, employees and warfighters we supported took steps to assert more control of the union’s approach to working with the agency.

The result was remarkable. The union became a partner in the agency’s business system modernization program. They worked with us to understand how employees were responding to the new system and business processes and what they needed to be successful. I believe their support and full engagement helped to make the program the success that it turned out to be. When we had a large field activity whose management and local union leaders were engaged in constant battles, unfair labor practice charges, arbitrations and generally obnoxious behavior on both sides, the council president and I sat down with the parties and told them if they didn’t stop the poisonous behavior we (management and union) would take matters out of their hands and stop it for them. They knew we were serious and that we would work together to make it happen. The result? Two years later the toxic relationship was gone and they won a labor-management partnership award.

The relationship between DLA and the union was real. It was based on mutual respect and interests, and it made a difference. Six years after leaving DLA I still count some of those union leaders among my friends. So, when people ask me about collective bargaining in government, I have to say that my own experience is that it can be bad, it can be good or it can be inconsequential. But with the right leaders in agencies and unions, it can be a force for real progress. Add that to the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the creation of which was championed by the United States after World War II, states, “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests” and my answer has to be that collective bargaining is a right worth preserving.

Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF International and founder of the blog, Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.

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