The White House this week “encouraged” agencies to hold labor-management forums. Over the years, these forums have been ritually established by Democratic administrations and ritually abolished by Republican administrations.
Weirdly, given the Biden administration’s initial penchant for government-by-executive-order, the abolishment EO from early in the Trump era still exists, and therefore remains in effect.
The Office of Personnel Management also encourages what it calls pre-decisional involvement — basically management giving advance notice of contemplated changes to the work environment that would affect the rank-and-file. I note that OPM didn’t quite put it that way. The acting OPM director, Kathy McGettigan, said OPM believes pre-decisional involvement “can be beneficial to agencies and labor unions.” (emphasis mine)
You can debate whether employees’ and unions’ interests line up precisely, but unions are here to stay. Agency management has to deal with them. And it should. Like them or not, federal employees unions are fully legal entities with defined rights. Anyway, union or not, what manager worth his or her salt would not want to pre-decisionally check in with employees on some measure? It’s the best way to get grudging acceptance at the least, and perhaps improvement on the idea with enthusiastic endorsement at the most. It’s called basic management.
But all is not well in agency-union relations. A really big and a very small bargaining unit are locked in bitter disputes with management at Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration.
SSA’s dispute with the Association of Administrative Law Judges started in 2018, when the agency, under Commissioner Andrew Saul, yanked the existing agreement and called for negotiations on a new one. Fast forward, and this week a federal arbitrator told SSA to, in effect, start over with the union and its 1,200 members. A third of the contract clauses are under litigation after having been imposed by a Federal Impasses Panel appointed by Trump. The rest of the agreement, the agency ordered imposed even though the union didn’t sign it. An arbitrator told SSA to cease and desist, and that the agency had committed unfair labor practices.
What a mess.
At VA, management and the Veterans Affairs Council of the American Federation of Government Employees — a unit with 230,000 members — also received an arbitrator’s decision this week. It found VA bargained in bad faith in talks that started in 2017, and granted the union’s grievance.
These types of decisions can be a bit humiliating for the agency. Like a dog wearing a cone of shame, VA must post notices that it will not bargain in bad faith, and “will hereafter bargain in good faith.”
So what has changed to make unions think now agencies will bargain in good faith? That’s easy. A change in management, brought about by the change in administrations.
At VA, so far, negotiations haven’t reopened. But Secretary Denis McDonough last month, in a speech to union members, did say, “And I’m pleased we’re in the process of resetting labor relations at VA.” He referenced the administration’s explicit support for unions in all sectors. So the ice there appears to be melting.
At SSA, Commissioner Andrew Saul, appointed by President Trump, hasn’t gone anywhere and may not for a while. AALJ President Melissa McIntosh tells me Saul has not personally responded to her or referenced the negotiations. Last month he did give an award to management employees who negotiated the agreement the arbitrator tossed.
I’d tell the bosses at both agencies to get on with it. Official time, telework policy, dealing with grievances, and the rest of what goes into these contracts all have importance to people. Bargaining in good faith is not the same as giving into every union proposal. Unions need to get that not every agency proposal comes from the equivalent of a coal trust.
But, as President Biden would say, c’mon, four years is long enough.