OPM outlines how agencies, unions can recreate labor-management forums

If implemented effectively, labor-management forums can improve employee satisfaction, engagement and performance, while also mitigating disputes, OPM said.

Ahead of a September deadline for agencies and unions to finalize their plans for recreating labor-management forums, the Office of Personnel Management is offering guidance on how federal leaders can best meet the new expectations.

Alongside a push to improve apprenticeship opportunities, a March 6 executive order from President Joe Biden called on agencies and federal unions to recreate the relatively informal forums. If implemented effectively, labor-management forums can improve employee satisfaction, engagement and organizational performance, while also mitigating possible disputes between the two parties, OPM said in March 13 guidance.

“We’ve seen examples where labor-management forums have worked on improving safety policies particularly for employees that work in hazardous jobs. There are many opportunities for them to tackle some tough issues that happen every day in every workplace,” OPM Deputy Associate Director for Accountability and Workforce Relations Tim Curry said in an interview. “We think that agencies and unions should see this as an opportunity to improve how agency operations work.”

As part of the executive order earlier this month, agencies now have until Sept. 3 to create and submit implementation plans to OPM on how they’ll reestablish labor-management forums. They’re a way for representatives from both management and a union to collaborate on personnel matters. The forums, usually outside the scope collective bargaining agreements, are meant to provide opportunities to come to agreements on any concerns or questions before personnel issues escalate.

Under the new executive order, and the subsequent OPM guidance, agencies and unions will also have to show through metrics and data how the forums are impacting engagement, satisfaction and organizational performance.

Agencies and federal unions have used labor-management forums for years as a tool to address employee concerns and aim to improve the workplace. In many cases, they can lead to savings in both time and costs.

“They work together to identify issues in the workplace,” Curry said. “They propose ideas and solutions to address these issues in a way to better serve the public and actually accomplish the agency mission in a better way.”

Labor-management forums had been around for years, up until a 2017 executive order during the Trump administration disbanded them.

In 2021, under the Biden administration, OPM once again green-lit labor-management forums. But the use of the forums was not required until Biden signed the new executive order, officially rescinding the 2017 order from Trump in the process.

Now with the new executive order, “some agencies might already be ahead of the game, and others may have some catching up to do,” Curry said.

Of course, each agency will have a somewhat different approach the executive order’s requirements. Labor-management forums, OPM said, are not one-size-fits-all. But the guidance still offers some broad strategies agencies can consider, such as developing a shared vision for what the forum should aim to achieve, and what issues it will cover.

“We would recommend that they focus on addressing each other’s interests and working together on developing mutually agreeable solutions that address those interests,” Curry said. “But also, agency leadership needs to show support for the forums from the top down, as well as the union leadership. We would want them to model the behavior that they would like to see lower-level managers and union representatives show.”

In that work, Curry said agencies will also have to evaluate and address any remaining obstacles in labor-management relations that stem from a series of now-rescinded executive orders from the Trump administration, which previously limited the scope of collective bargaining.

“We want to confirm with agencies that there are no more outstanding issues, which might be obstacles to moving forward on other issues for the forums to address,” Curry said.

Trying to get plans set up by September could cause agencies or unions to run into a few trouble spots. For example, OPM said in its guidance that there may be some resistance from either party, or even agency employees themselves.

In those instances, Curry said it’s important to keep in mind how the forums are meant to be structured, and what their real purpose is.

“Forums are not co-management arrangements, as some may believe, and we advise forums to address this early on,” Curry said. “Management is encouraged to have discussions with unions about issues before they make a management decision, and on the other hand, unions aren’t waiving their collective bargaining rights on matters discussed in the forums.”

Federal Labor Relations Authority Chairman Susan Tsui Grundmann said although the work to reach agreements in labor-management may at times be challenging, the results can be tremendous.

“One recent example in the wake of all our budgetary issues and to avoid furloughing our own employees, we actually gave up a whole floor in our headquarters, consolidating two floors into one. And I told our union vice president that this just had the makings of a disaster,” Grundmann said during a March 27 FLRA town hall. “But his remark was, ‘it makes it a whole lot easier when you get along.’ So whatever the future holds, we commit to have our internal union beside us to guide us and to allow us to lead by example.”

Both leading up to the September deadline and after it passes, agencies can lean on resources from OPM to address any concerns or questions. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service also offers guidance and advice on setting up and using the forums.

“These forums provide frontline employees with a more meaningful voice in agency operations and foster discussions about improving the effectiveness of government services,” National Treasury Employees Union National President Doreen Greenwald said in a statement earlier this month. “It is our experience that pre-decisional input inherent in conversations between labor and management is a productive means to give employees a say in agency decisions, solve problems in a non-adversarial way, address workplace issues that hinder efficiency and improve services to the American people.”

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