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Obama creates good cheer by granting labor-management forums

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, December 10, 2009

President Obama gave federal employee unions an early holiday present on Wednesday. But like a Santa Claus who can't grant all the items on a wish list, Obama didn't provide everything labor leaders wanted.

Obama met a long-sought union goal when he issued an executive order creating labor-management forums within the government.

The order creates a National Council on Federal Labor-Management and similar bodies in departments and agencies. They are designed to foster better relations between workers and supervisors, with the goal of improving service to Uncle Sam's customers and taxpayers.

The council will terminate in two years, which apparently is standard operating procedure for this kind of thing, although the president can extend it. Presumably he will do so, unless it proves to be a total flop.

The council will develop "recommendations for innovative ways to improve delivery of services and products to the public while cutting costs and advancing employee interests."

That's a bland way to describe a system that labor and management think can make an exciting difference in the way agencies perform. Darryl Perkinson, president of the Federal Managers Association, said, "FMA believes that any forum allowing maximum participation of stakeholders, prior to decisions being made, improves the chances for success exponentially."

Exponentially increasing services to the public may be a bit much to expect, but the good cheer generated by the order certainly is in keeping with the holiday spirit.

"Creating these labor-management forums will provide the kind of positive environment necessary for a meaningful discussion about solutions to workplace issues and their potential impact on an agency, its employees and the public," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "There are many, many issues at the local level that will benefit from this program."

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, predicted "a new era of relations between workers and managers inside the federal government."

Berry and Jeffrey Zients, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management, are co-chairs of the council. Berry said, "By directing all agencies to sit down with their elected labor representatives, we are restarting a collaborative process begun under the Clinton administration that yielded concrete improvements in agency performance."

But it's not all kumbaya.

Union leaders wanted Obama to direct agencies to negotiate subjects, known in government lingo as B1 rights or permissive issues, that now are at the discretion of supervisors.

Such direction was included in an August draft of the order. After complaints from managers, the White House changed directions with an October draft, leaving labor leaders with heartburn.

"The administration's decision not to make b(1) bargaining mandatory, is, of course, a disappointment," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

That same decision put a twinkle in the eyes of supervisors.

"We are gratified that the Executive Order does not require executives and managers to bargain over permissive issues, as was proposed initially, because the resulting loss of agility would be devastating in the face of the administration's policy and management priorities," said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.

Federal law says that management, "at the election of the agency," may bargain with workers "on the numbers, types, and grades of employees or positions assigned to any organizational subdivision, work project, or tour of duty, or on the technology, methods, and means of performing work."

That covers a lot of very important territory that management need not discuss with labor.

The order, however, does call for the establishment of "several pilot projects" in which "some executive departments or agencies elect to bargain over some or all" of the optional items.

Labor leaders are pleased that President Obama's order goes beyond a similar one signed by former president Bill Clinton. As soon as Clinton left office, President George W. Bush allowed the structures created by the previous order to waste away.

"The Executive Order improves on the Clinton-era Partnership Order by putting in place concrete mechanisms to create an environment where productive labor/management relations can occur," the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers said in a statement.

While expressing disappointment over the limited bargaining rights, labor leaders were quick to note how significantly improved labor-management relations are now compared with during the Bush administration.

"We are still in a much better place today than we have been for the last nine years," said William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

The order is available online, with this column, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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