Federal labor-management forums look like GOP target

Joe Davidson
Columnist October 11, 2011

It’s been almost two years since President Obama ordered the creation of labor-management forums to “improve the productivity and effectiveness of the Federal Government.”

At a Senate hearing Tuesday, people directly involved with the forums — administration officials and leaders of employee organizations — praised the non-confrontational approach to problem-solving that the forums provide.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

The praise, however, was not unanimous.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the federal workforce subcommittee, set the tone when he said Obama’s executive order “emphasizes a critical point about government performance — that a non-adversarial forum for employees, managers, and agency officials to discuss government operations will improve the services our government provides.”

But George Nesterczuk, a veteran of Republican administrations, differed forcefully.

“Permit me to sound a discordant note,” his testimony began.

First, a little background. Nesterczuk was a senior official in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and he served Bush as a top adviser in the Office of Personnel Management. Just before Bush took office, Nesterczuk co-authored a Heritage Foundation paper critical of President Bill Clinton’s labor-management partnerships, the forerunner of the Obama administration forums.

“In the area of management of government . . . the new President’s first act should be to revoke” the Clinton executive order, Nesterczuk’s article said.

That is exactly what happened.

Less than a month after taking office, Bush issued an order revoking Clinton’s. With few exceptions, the labor-management partnerships died, until revived by Obama’s executive order in December 2009.

Now Nesterczuk is taking aim at Obama’s labor-management forums. As one voice among many at a largely overlooked subcommittee hearing, which most members of the panel ignored, his comments are not big news.

But Nesterczuk’s message should not be overlooked.

His influence with Republicans has been demonstrated. Congressional Republicans — including Sen. Ronald H. Johnson of Wisconsin, the panel’s ranking GOP member and one who did attend the hearing — already have a list of complaints about federal unions. Nesterczuk’s blunt testimony read like a script for a GOP takedown of a labor-friendly Democratic initiative.

Obama’s forums “are Clinton partnerships on steroids,” Nesterczuk said. “One has to wonder what management crisis called for such a radical escalation of the role of federal unions.”

The forums, he continued, are “a radical initiative that is certain to drive up the cost of governing,” a “dangerous precedent” and “are not ‘good government’ but rather pandering to special interests.”

With words like that, you’d think the forums wielded real decision-making power, instead of just facilitating suggestions, recommendations and communications. The forums do not decide policy. The Obama order is replete with such phrases as “shall advise,” “suggested measurements and metrics,” “providing guidance” and “developing recommendations.”

The order explicitly says nothing in it “shall be construed to impair” executive department authority.

W. Scott Gould, Veterans Affairs Department deputy secretary, confirmed that point in his testimony when he said, “It is important for all parties to understand that the executive order does not undermine management’s responsibility or authority to manage the workplace.”

Nonetheless, in Nesterczuk’s mind, the forums have allowed federal employee unions to become the “fox in the chicken coop.” His argument about forums driving up the cost of governing, because of such things as staff time related to forum meetings, is likely to be repeated despite other evidence of cost-savings.

For example, Pasquale Tamburrino Jr., the Defense Department deputy assistant secretary for civilian personnel policy, told the subcommittee that labor-management cooperation led to the elimination of a requirement to dry-dock a submarine, which resulted in $600,000 in savings. Defense conducts 450, or 60 percent, of the government’s labor-management forums.

Tamburrino acknowledged that there are costs “for engaging in this collaborative behavior.” But those costs, he added, “pale in comparison to the potential benefits of effective engagement between labor and management.”

Obama’s order creating the forums expires in December. Letting them die apparently would be fine with Nesterczuk, who called on Congress to defund the forums “for the sake of maintaining the neutrality of federal civil service.”

Don’t be surprised if that idea is seen again in Republican-sponsored legislation.

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter:@JoeDavidsonWP.

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