This experienced federal executive says tension with employee unions is a good thing

What is the proper role of union today? And do they help or hinder what JFK called the effective conduct of public business? We're exploring the question in a s...

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Pretty much taken for granted, federal employees unions have been around for more than a century. The National Federation of Federal Employees dates to the World War I era. The next big push came from President John F. Kennedy, whose executive order 10988 launched the modern era of federal unions. So what is their proper role today? And do they help or hinder what Kennedy called the effective conduct of public business? Federal Drive with Tom Temin is exploring the question in a four-part series of interviews this week called Federal Unions: For better or for worse. Yesterday we heard from academic Jim Perry of Indiana University. Next, we spoke with with a long-experienced federal human capital practitioner in the intelligence community and at the Department of Homeland Security. He’s now a professor at the University of South Florida, Ron Sanders.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ron, good to have you on.

Ron Sanders: I’m glad to be here.

Tom Temin: And you were in the intelligence community and also in the civilian side of government as a human capital officer, chief human capital officer, and have just thought about this quite a bit in your career. Tell us what your experience was, first of all, in dealing with unions in those times?

Ron Sanders: Well, I’ll confess to being a longtime management representative. My very first federal job, I was chief spokesman for our collective bargaining agreement, covering about 17,000 government civilians. I was on the management side, and I’ll confess to having negotiated some of the largest collective bargaining agreements in government, including the master labor agreement with the National Treasury Employees Union. So I’ve had long experience as a management representative going head to head with unions. And let me just say that I personally believe that the tension in going head to head with unions is very healthy, at least within certain guardrails. I’ve always felt that there are two points of view, it’s not exclusively management, it’s not exclusively union, and trying to work out our differences at the bargaining table, or through consultation and collaboration has always been, I think, useful to me from an agency standpoint. You want to hear from employees, you want to try to take their point of view and into account, it can’t all be a management perspective. So I think the tension has been healthy. And I’ve seen that tension play out in some of the biggest bargaining tables ever.

Tom Temin: And did you get the sense that the desires and aims of the unions were aligned with those of the employees themselves? Because again, large numbers of employees in not so much manufacturing settings, or factory type settings, but mostly white collar settings.

Ron Sanders: Well, that’s always been the big question. Of course, in the federal government, unions can’t have a union shop, they can’t mandate membership. Dues and membership are all voluntary. So one of the questions that everyone has, especially on the management side, does the union really reflect the rank-and-file workforce at large? We know they reflect dues paying members, but they are elected as exclusive representatives for the entire workforce, to the entire bargaining unit. And so we always had to gauge whether the demands they were making on us represented the demands of the workforce at large. And I have to confess that in some cases, we were never sure. I will tell you that when I negotiated the master labor agreement with the National Treasury Employees Union, we always felt that NTEU spoke for the rank-and-file workforce, despite the number that may actually pay dues, when we were standing up the Department of Homeland Security, or trying to establish the parameters for the National Security Personnel System. In the latter case, we were actually dealing with 70 unions trying to work through that. I think we had less confidence that those 70 unions spoke for the almost 800,000 civilians in DoD. But it is one of the questions that has to be taken into account as you explore the value of unions in government.

Tom Temin: And you mentioned the tension between management and the union representatives at the time of negotiating master agreements. And you said that was a healthy thing. Explore that a little bit more with us.

Ron Sanders: Well, let’s take an individual case, as an example, trying to fire somebody for poor performance. Of course, there’s a management point of view. Here’s your performance agreement, your performance standards, Mr./Ms. employee, you’re not living up to them, and we want to remove you from the workplace. Well, there is an alternative point of view. And I think it’s healthy to hear that alternative point of view. It could be bad management. It could be poor working conditions. It could be ambiguous personnel policies or performance standards that are at the root of that poor performance. And at the end of the day, every employee is valuable. So it’s healthy to have those contrasting points of view in an individual case. And again, when you elevate that and talk about this at the collective bargaining level, it is also healthy to have that counterpoint at that level. It’s not all management. It’s not all labor. It’s trying to find the balance between the two. I can think of innumerable examples, from individual cases, to matters of agency wide policy, or even government wide policy when you look at the labor management partnership council, where having that point of view is healthy. Up to a point, again. It’s not healthy if it ends up stifling or impeding agency operations. I’m a management guy. So the mission is most important to me. And if collective bargaining gets in the way of that mission, then I’m going to push back. But at the same time, it’s healthy to have that employee viewpoint when considering the mission. Let me give you a quick example, I apologize for running on, but in standing up the Department of Homeland Security, in the very, very early days, we wrestled with the union…unions, there were four of them that had national recognition, we wrestled with the union’s over who would meet suspicious ships or planes at the border. You got a ship coming in, the cargo is suspicious, it’s coming from a place that you don’t trust. Who’s going to meet? And the union’s would always take the view, well, if it’s it the middle of the night, graveyard shift, let it be the most junior employees, the most senior employees should have their choice of shifts. Well, that may be true in a general sense, but when you’re meeting a suspicious ship at the border, San Diego, Seattle, Miami, wherever, you want your most experienced people meeting that ship, and if it’s at 2:00 in the morning, so be it, you want your most experienced people. I have to tell you, when we confronted rank-and-file members with that point of view, they said yes, you want us at the border, we’re the ones that can detect, that are going to be most suspicious, have the most experience, are most likely to detect somebody trying to get around the protections at the border. So again, having that point of view is healthy. And in some cases, again, unions will adopt that management point of view when it comes to the mission.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with South Florida University professor, Ron Sanders, former federal chief human capital officer. And that kind of answers my next question, is, you regularly hear the union officials, and I believe them, that say that they too have the delivery of services to the public, or the mission at the top of their minds when negotiating with agencies, and you’ve got the sense then, in general, that that was true of them?

Ron Sanders: And I think, in general, that is true from my management perspective, that at the end of the day, and I think this is unique, well, I’m not going to use the word unique, but I think it is characteristic of most federal labor representatives, they come from the mission, and they are loyal to that mission. And while they may say, here’s an employee perspective, at the end of the day, if you can demonstrate to them that what they want to do would actually impede the mission, then I think, for the most part, they’re going to say, okay, mission first. Not always. Again, there’s that healthy tension, but for the most part, I think, particularly for those that have grown up on the front-lines, and then later taken on union positions, they are the ones that are most likely to remain loyal and with some allegiance to that mission.

Tom Temin: Sure. And the example you used of who should meet these suspicious ships showed that they could be flexible on strict seniority types of questions when the mission demanded something other than what strict seniority and assignments of shifts and jobs and so forth, would ordinarily demand.

Ron Sanders: And I have to tell you a little bit of anecdotal dirty laundry here. The union officials we were dealing with had no experience in homeland security, border security, national security, they came from a different agency. And honestly, they had less concern about that mission and more concerned about seniority should rule, junior employees do the graveyard shift. When we actually got to rank-and-file union members and union officials who came from that rank and file, they had a different point of view. And they said mission first. And we’ll figure out how to accommodate employees, junior and senior. So again, I think a lot of it comes down to who you’re dealing with. And it will vary. But even then, as I said, the tension is healthy.

Tom Temin: Sure. Was there ever an occasion when negotiating a deal with one of the unions that you just wanted to pick up an ashtray and throw it at them? If they had ashtrays still in those days.

Ron Sanders: More than once. And again, I’ll give you an example and it will be interesting to hear some of my union colleagues respond to this. But again, I’ll harken back to when we were standing up the Department of Homeland Security. And we wanted to create a series of what are called zero tolerance offenses. I had them in the IRS. If an IRS employee browse the taxpayers tax records, like Tom Cruise’s, they were out the door.

Tom Temin: Sure.

Ron Sanders: No mitigation, no nothing. They were out the door. And we wanted to take a similar approach with Homeland Security. Secure breach? Out the door. I won’t bore you with all of the examples, but they were mission driven examples. And of course, the union point of view was always due process, notice, no zero-tolerance, you should have progressive discipline, a third party should be able to mitigate that discipline. And I will tell you that the folks on the management side of that debate did feel like throw something at our union colleagues. But again, I don’t think they took that position in bad faith. I think it was a position born out of employee concerns, that if we let management do this zero-tolerance, they’re going to abuse it and use it to get rid of employees that just happen to disagree with them. And so I think at the end of the day, when you build that trust, and you can take it for granted that both sides are approaching a problem in good faith, then you’re going to be able to work things out.

Tom Temin: Yeah, that’s really the secret sauce here, isn’t it? I think in the last administration, we saw a breakdown of faith in the other side’s trustworthiness, going in two directions. And that led to some really tough human capital and tough human relations, basic human relations issues, which can get in the way of good negotiations.

Ron Sanders: It can and I’ll share another sort of dirty little secret with you. You know, the way the pendulum always seemed to swing from left-to-right to left-to-right, as opposed to settling in the center. Take the Labor Management Partnership Council.

Tom Temin: Right.

Ron Sanders: Every republican administration, including ones that I have served, took it upon themselves to eliminate that partnership counsel. I will tell you that line human capital officials, including management officials, like myself, always sort of wrinkled our nose at that. Because we knew you had to build a trusting relationship with your union no matter what the presidential administration was. Because you had to live with them on a day-to-day basis. And you had to work with them to accomplish the mission. So we always used to say, behind closed doors, the partnership council is about as benign a forum as you can have. It’s a place for unions to share their point of view, it’s not binding. Keep it in place, because I will tell you, every human capital officer and labor relations specialist on the management side, worth her or his salt, is maintaining a productive relationship with the union, despite what the Washington politicians may be saying. You just have to do that in order to survive.

Tom Temin: And what’s your feeling about the issues that have been hot buttons for a couple of years now? Now, they seem to be mostly over. And that is official time. That is federal employees doing union business on federal clock time, I guess you could say. And also the concomitant issue of whether the union should have well equipped free space within federal agencies. That was taken away. Those things mostly under the Trump administration. Now they’re back under the Biden administration. Should we be arguing about that particular detail?

Ron Sanders: Certainly not arguing about that in cases of legitimate good faith representation of workforce interests. Official time spent doing that is official time well spent. I always appreciated having a union counterpart, full time union employee, who I could bring in and shut the door, and we can have an honest good faith conversation about whether this employee or this workplace should change or be fired, or whatever the case may be. So official time spent in good faith solving workplace problems, we shouldn’t be arguing about that. Same thing with union space, especially if that union space allowed me to have access to union officials without having to travel across town. If I could just walk down the hall, shut the door and have those honest conversations. Have there been cases of abuse? Yes. There should be a way to police those abuses. And I will tell you, I found cases where management officials had let union officials get away with murder. And to me the fault was on both sides of that equation. If the management official was letting a union official use official time for other than official union business representing the worker, then it’s just as much that managers fault as it is the union officials fault. Both of them should be fired. But within those guardrails, good faith conversations on official time in union spaces furnished by the government, that’s okay by me. I found them to be far more useful than abusive.

Tom Temin: And my final question concerns management, because I guess in an ideal world where every federal line manager, and their are tens, hundreds of thousands of them, was equally talented in dealing with the rank-and-file workforce, a lot of these questions would never come up. But in many ways, we have that job yet continuing. It’s a never-ending job to make sure that those line managers, and in some cases the upper managers as well, are versed in what their responsibilities are, and in the right way to operate an agency and treat their workforce.

Ron Sanders: I agree with that. Absolutely. Don’t get me started. I do think that…

Tom Temin: I think I just did.

Ron Sanders: One of the things that agencies have to do is train their managers in how to manage people. Too many times, and there’s good reason for this, but too many times your best technicians find themselves into first and second line management positions. And they know the program, they know the rules, they know the regulations, they don’t necessarily know how to lead people. Not their fault. I think that’s a responsibility that agencies need to have. And part of that responsibility is to teach them how to deal with their employees and their employees union representatives. It is not all adversarial. It should be about solving workplace problems. But that takes training. It takes teaching. I always thought of that as an agency responsibility, and took it seriously. Unfortunately I think, as a general matter, the federal government under invests in its supervisors and managers, and they are less effective as a result. People don’t do this. Some people do this naturally, but most do not, they have to be taught. So I think that’s an agency responsibility. And when you do, it can work very well. I think that relationship between a first or second line manager and her or his union steward, or union vice president, or union fill in the blank can solve a lot of workplace problems. It can also ensure that that management official doesn’t stand for any abuse. And I think that’s where you begin to strike the right balance.

Tom Temin: Ron Sanders is a professor at South Florida University and former federal chief human capital officer. Thanks so much for joining me.

Ron Sanders: Happy to do it. Thank you.

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