Labor-Management Forums arrive late in Biden administration

Labor-Management Forums in federal agencies come and go, over and over again, depending on which party holds the White House.

Labor-Management Forums in federal agencies come and go, over and over again, depending on which party holds the White House. Now they have returned, but only in the third year of the Biden administration. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with someone about that: former management processor and union president Bob Tobias.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin  I was a little bit surprised that they came only now with the management forums, because, you know, when President Biden took office, he had a stack about a foot and a half high of prettily bounded executive orders all ready to go, clearly written during the transition period. But labor management forum restoration wasn’t there.

Bob Tobias It wasn’t Tom. You know, as you pointed out, the history of labor management forums has come and gone. That started with President Clinton, and then his executive order was revoked by President Bush. And then President Obama issued a new executive order, and that was revoked by President Trump. And this executive order is really, I think, the most comprehensive effort to create labor management forums that’s ever been tried before. And we have to keep in mind that what the goal of these forums is, as President Biden pointed out, “employee satisfaction, manager satisfaction and organizational performance.” So, these are created to increase organizational performance. And what’s interesting in President Biden’s executive order, he includes manager satisfaction. He recognizes that without manager satisfaction, there can’t be the collaboration necessary to improve productivity in agency. So that’s brand new. And I think very, very insightful.

Tom Temin Yeah. The rolling Stone theme comes to mind. I can’t get no satisfaction, but now we can, I guess.

Bob Tobias But the goal is to get that satisfaction. Keep on rolling Tom.

Tom Temin Well, yeah, I think though there’s a good thought in there though. And that is if one side of a negotiation or discussion has its arms folded and its jaw set and the other one is eager, you’re not going to have a good discussion.

Bob Tobias That’s correct. And one of the OPM implementation directives is to create a shared vision for the future of the relationship and asks, well, how can the LMF help the agency meet its mission? How can the LMF harness the ideas of employees who are actually doing the work? How can the LMF create a mutual commitment to build a relationship that resolves disputes more constructively? Now, these are really laudable goals and objectives, and they have been achieved in the past. And so, this order relays that groundwork much more specifically, and requires the agency and union officials to submit what I would describe as a strategic plan, with OPM approving or disapproving that plan in the future.

Tom Temin Well, let me pull on one string there. Union officials, some agencies, the staff is not organized. And in some other places there might be a bargaining unit, but people outside of the bargaining unit might also have something to say with respect to operations. So does it have to be union representatives, or does it have to simply include them.

Bob Tobias In an organized workplace? It consists of managers and employees through their union in an unorganized workplace, management can create forums that include employees from the workplace. The first element that OPM says must be concluded in creating this new plan is to take a look at, well, what’s the current state of the relationship? And OPM says, well, have you implemented all of the other executive orders that President Biden has issued concerning labor management relations? So, let’s look at the current state, because you can’t plan for the future unless you look at the current state. And it mandates in these labor management form that top level agency officials and top-level union officials participate. I mean, that has to be said. It’s never been said before because political appointees, which is what President Biden is talking about, come and accept their jobs to create public policy and to implement public policy. But most people who come to the federal government in that level have no idea about labor management relations in the federal sector and don’t consciously sign up to do it. So, President Biden is saying, you must do it. You must include this as part of your portfolio to. Be an acceptable political appointee, which I think is really significant. And what he says is that these top people have to participate because they have to model the behavior they seek from those they lead, and that’s critical.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Bob Tobias, former professor in the Key executive Leadership program at American University. And my question then is if it is the union representatives that are part of these labor management forums, what is there to discuss that’s not already in the collective bargaining agreement, which may have 50, 60, or 100 clauses to begin with.

Bob Tobias So one of the primary areas to be covered by labor management forums are what are called pre decisional involvement in a normal labor management relationship. Management puts together a proposal, presents it to the union and particularly in the context of a new change that the management wants to implement. So, they put it together. They present it to the union, they bargain over it. This executive order, as have all of the past, require pre decisional involvement, which means that as management is deciding what to do and how to do it, the union is included in involved. And at that phase it’s not bargaining. It’s a collaborative effort to achieve the goal and objective of the proposed change. So, in the federal government, there’s constant change not covered by a collective bargaining agreement. And this provides a process pre decisional involvement to include an involve the people who actually do the work and know what the impact of a change will be on the work and including in involving them up front, saves so much grief and heartache when the implementation is attempted and fails.

Tom Temin And what’s your best advice for the union leadership that might be encountering in a labor management forum? A political appointee who just has no experience in dealing with staff, consulting with staff, whether unionized or not? In other words, how to not boil the frog exactly, but say, hey, listen, this is how this can work.

Bob Tobias Well, OPM recommends that both the Federal Labor Relations Authority and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service provide training, joint training to union leaders and managers, and highly recommends that people who do not or never have had a relationship enroll themselves in this kind of a program. And since it’s a joint training, people are learning together about, most importantly, how to create a relationship. You know, we call it labor management relations. And yet we forget that. Indeed, what we’re talking about here is creating and maintaining a stable relationship. And as we all know, creating and maintaining stable relationships ain’t easy.

Tom Temin Do you ever wish they would change the word from labor to maybe staff? Because labor has the connotation of sort of 1920s Samuel Gompers, and here we are avoiding the sparks flying as the steel is poured into the ingot.

Bob Tobias Well, you know, Tom, maybe so, but I think it’s so well enmeshed in law and regulation. We’re stuck with labor and management. But this order seeks to really transform the idea that you just articulated into something where instead of the sparks are flying, collaborative relationships are created and maintained. And I can tell you when that works, Tom, both sides are very proud of what they create. When employees participate in solving problems, they can say to themselves and they can say to their colleagues, man, we’re much more productive. We’re not working harder, but we’re much more productive. And that can be and has been the result of many successful collaborative labor management relationships. And the implementation also requires the labor management forums to create metrics to measure their progress. So, it’s not just words on a paper. You got to keep track of what you do, how you do it, and whether it’s successful.

Tom Temin And what about the timing of this? It’s late in the administration and there are deadlines and timelines in that latest executive order.

Bob Tobias There are Tom. The parties have 180 days to create their plan. OPM has another 60 days to review the plans and provide a response. And if you add up those months, you come to November 1st. And if we have a new President Trump, clearly nothing will happen if we have another Biden administration. This material will be the groundwork for going forward. So, it was late, but it is out, and it can provide a map for the future.

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