Why the Federal Labor Relations Authority may be headed toward furloughs or layoffs

Few people in government have more experience in federal labor relations and employee issues than  the Federal Drive with Tom Temin's guest. For the past yea...

Few people in government have more experience in federal labor relations and employee issues than  the Federal Drive with Tom Temin’s guest. For the past year, she’s been chairman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority. For an update on the FLRA ( and other things): Susan Tsui Grundmann.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And the FLRA, now you’ve been there about a year. And just because I know some of the other jobs you’ve had earlier, is chairman of the FLRA kind of a divided job. That is, do you have administrative duties for the operations of the apparatus supporting the board, or do you get to spend all your time on cases?

Susan Tsui Grundmann You’re absolutely right. My workload essentially doubled from being a member to the chairman. It’s all hands on deck. Everybody plays. We’ve got a great staff, very supportive, very intelligent, and a lot of institutional memory. So it’s a good place to be at a good time.

Tom Temin But it’s not a good place in terms of the budget allocation from Congress, which is starting to cause some problems.

Susan Tsui Grundmann You nailed it. So here’s where we are. The proposed funding levels for 2024 range from 28 million to 29.4 million. So using the high mark, 29.4, that’s still $200,000 lower than we were two decades ago. Now, factor in inflation since 2004, and you can pick your inflation rate. But the bottom line is, while our funding one sustained 213 employees on staff, today that number only supports 112. That’s almost half of our staffing levels for the last 20 years. And yet the mission itself has not changed. If anything, the work has expanded. With rising unionization in the federal sector, a sharp spike in filings in our Office of General Counsel up almost 60% in the last two years and increasing demands for more tools and assistance to facilitate resolution of labor disputes. We are busier than ever, and yet we’re at a 20 year low in funding.

Tom Temin That’s kind of surprising because there’s a lot of members of Congress, and certainly the current administration has been full throated in their support for unionizing, whether the federal or the private sector workforce.

Susan Tsui Grundmann You’re right. But comparison to other agencies and not just any agency, but specifically those that address workers protections in both the private and public sectors, the [Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB)], the [Office of Special Counsel (OSC)],[Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS)], NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board, the National Mediation Board, they’ve all seen an increase over the last 20 years, ranging from a 20% bump to over 100% bump. The FLRA is the only the only agency in the negative column. And note that our sister agency, the NLRB, was flat funded for ten years. But we’ve been so for double that time. And you and I, we all understand that we live in times of fiscal austerity and that flat funding is a reality. But with inflation and an anticipated cost of living increase, there’s just no more meat left on the bone.

Tom Temin And what effect has this had, do you think, so far?

Susan Tsui Grundmann Well, if nothing changes in the proposed funding that we’re seeing, like many agencies, 80% of our funding in any given year goes directly to support our people, our staff salaries and benefits. The remaining 20% indirectly supports our staff. Infrastructure, IT, rent. Worst case scenario, what we once thought was a mere possibility may now be the eventuality. We’re talking furloughs beginning as early as next year. Furloughs are the same people who process the cases, investigate the charges, mediate, litigate these matters and issue decisions. They will be sent home for periods of time. And that directly impacts when and how long disputes will linger governmentwide. It will have a ripple effect not just on our agency, but on every agency. And it’s unions that bring their concerns before us. Now, we’ve had a little experience in this area, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to share it. They say that justice delayed is justice denied. With over four years without a general counsel, we had a number of ULP’s. So as a result, when an acting GC Charlotte A. Dye Was appointed in 2021, she had almost 500 cases waiting for her on day one of her job. In some of those cases, the parties and potential witnesses had moved on. And in one particular case a party died. And while Ms.Dye and our amazing regional offices were able to clear the backlog, with cases now scheduled well into next year, keep in mind, they’re still dealing with cases coming in with almost 60% increase. So, as she has said before, it’s like trying to tread water while you are drowning.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Susan Tsui Grundmann, chairman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority. And just to clarify something you said earlier. Is it, in fact, down to 112 employees from 213.

Susan Tsui Grundmann Correct, yes.

Tom Temin Okay. And maybe just help us understand the nature of the cases. When you were at the Merit Systems Protection Board, and later at the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, those were individuals that had a grievance with another individual or maybe with the hierarchy of their agency. In the case of the FLRA, is it always a bargaining unit versus the government or do individuals have issues there also?

Susan Tsui Grundmann That’s a great question. You’re right in that we see individual cases at OCWR and at MSPB. Here, generally, it’s unions and agencies. Occasionally we will see an individual, but we are here to adjudicate the issues between agencies and unions and their bargaining disputes or their lack of bargaining disputes, it’s a different dynamic. Also, in comparing MSPB, there are a number of statutes that generally come into play. At the FLRA, basically, it’s one and that’s the Federal Service Labor Management relations statute.

Tom Temin So it’s a little simpler maybe in some sense.

Susan Tsui Grundmann It’s not any simpler, it’s just as complex. But all the disputes generally focus on that one statute.

Tom Temin And how has the workload been? I know during the Trump administration there were some major issues that I think it was the VA in the American Federation of Government Employees. And there was a big dispute that went on for some time over about 15 or 16 of the clauses in a big agreement. But that all got resolved, and I guess there’s a new make up to the board, of course, because that changes when the administration changes. So with all the moonlight and roses expressed by the administration between itself and the big unions, shouldn’t the workload be going down now?

Susan Tsui Grundmann The workload is always high. Disputes are always there as much as parties try and resolve their own issues, that’s where we exist. And let me take a moment just to kind of dispel a myth that might be out there. Some people may perceive us to be at the end of the process that we don’t enter the picture until the parties cannot reach an agreement. But in reality, we are there throughout the process. We’re there in the beginning to educate the parties on their rights and protections under the law. You will see videos on our Web site, we’re on YouTube. We just released a five part series on collective bargaining in the federal sector, our version of streaming, and it’s received record numbers of hits. We’re also there in the middle. We offer mediation services, facilitation services through all three of our components, the Office of General Counsel, the Federal Services Impasses Panel, and the Authority. And the resolution rate for most of these cases is extremely high. And then finally, of course, we’re at the end of the process with the issuance of the decision. But one of the things we want to do is to give the parties tools to not only resolve their current dispute, but to resolve disputes in the future.

Tom Temin And how do you ensure that the two sides, let’s say management and the unions, perceive the FLRA as impartial as a referee and someone whose judgments are according to what the statutes say, as opposed to pro-labor or anti-labor?

Susan Tsui Grundmann I think the parties who come to us understand what our role is, that it is an independent, quasi judicial neutral. And that comes through not only through our adjudication process, but through mediation as well. We don’t take a side.

Tom Temin And getting back to the budget issue, we have been to Capitol Hill to talk about this. What do they say? What’s their answer when you show them these numbers that the buying power is 50% of what it was two decades ago?

Susan Tsui Grundmann We understand these are times of fiscal austerity. And the other agencies also understand it as well. But we’re the only agency that is funded not only at a lower level below the rate of inflation, but lower than the actual dollar amount funded at 20 years ago. So come on, Tom, let’s do the math. What if you were paid at a rate less than you received two decades ago? What would you do?

Tom Temin I would leave, but the FLRA needs to exist because it’s statutory. So that’s why I’m just curious as to what the members say when confronted with this information.

Susan Tsui Grundmann Exactly. And I think the message that we’ve borne is that this just isn’t a union issue. It’s not a management issue, it’s a good government issue. When the parties are deprived of an efficient means to resolve their disputes.

Tom Temin And another question I had given the workload that you say that a steady regardless of who’s in the White House or whatever. Are there any recurring patterns that if the unions could see them or if management could see them, they would know how to head them off in the first place? Are the things that come up over and over again.

Susan Tsui Grundmann The issues change over time. In the beginning, and this is before I arrived at the authority, the issues were going into remote work. Now the issues have come to returning from the remote workplace and expanding telework. So the issues will morph over time and there will always be changes. The core to our work is always the right to bargain. And we understand that in our preamble itself in the beginning that labor organizations and collective bargaining are in the public interest, and that is central and core to our mission.

Tom Temin And just a final question, a little bit of a wild card, because you have experience in the private labor market as well as an attorney and involved in some private sector unions. Do you think the fact that federal unions cannot bargain over wages and financial benefits, does that help focus them on issues that really matter to the mission somewhat more? Maybe it’s better that they don’t bargain over money.

Susan Tsui Grundmann That’s a good way to look at it. The act itself is a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, you have a very strong management rights clause. Unions cannot strike. There’s no self-help and there’s no closed shop. But on the other hand, under our statute, union officials get official time. And central to the statute is the ability to grieve, to arbitrate and to appeal. So it is that balancing act, and it does work out. Tom, let me go back to another point. We understand that funding is a privilege. We believe that we earn that privilege every day. But the bottom line is that at the current funding levels are unsustainable, not just at a lower level, but below the inflation rate, which was an actual dollar amount we received 20 years ago. And you’ve asked a lot of good questions, not just today, but over the years. So here’s one for you. Does this funding level send a message? Not just a message to our employees who work tirelessly, not doing the work more for less, but for less and less and less? Is the message to a larger community that labor management relations between agencies, their unions and the employees the unions represent? Are these relationships less significant, less substantial, less worthy of a fundamental investment?

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