President Clinton will soon urge the Cabinet to comply with an often-ignored executive order designed to increase union participation in federal workplace decisions, administration officials said yesterday.
The White House plans to require federal agencies to file progress reports with the Office of Management and Budget on steps they are taking to improve their labor-management relations. For agencies and unions at odds over workplace issues, the Office of Personnel Management will provide training and other assistance, the officials said.
The White House decision to strengthen "partnerships" between agencies and their unions was reached yesterday during a meeting between administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, and federal union leaders.
Since 1993, Vice President Gore has supported "partnerships" that expand the power of unions inside agencies. The issue could be politically sensitive for Gore, because he wants to maintain strong union support as he campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination. The AFL-CIO could endorse a candidate as early as next week and federal unions expect to announce their favorites by year's end, earlier than in past campaign cycles.
Administration officials said yesterday's decision--which was a year in the making because of resistance at some Cabinet departments--was not linked to Gore's election bid. "Nothing has been torqued to accommodate the vice president's run for office," one official said.
Five years ago, as part of Gore's "reinventing government" project, Clinton issued an executive order directing federal agencies to set up labor-management "partnership councils" throughout the government. Gore hoped the order would end the longstanding adversarial relationship between unions and agencies as they adopted cooperative approaches successfully used in the private sector.
Clinton instructed the agencies to negotiate with unions over issues traditionally considered off limits, such as the number of positions, the types of skills needed for specific positions and the kind of software and computers used to perform the work.
From the start, numerous federal agencies expressed skepticism about bargaining over what government lawyers call "permissive" subjects and ignored that part of the executive order. A number of career executives contended that having to bargain over an expanded list of subjects would slow decisions and interfere with operations.
At one point earlier this year, senior administration officials drafted a memo for Gore to send to agency heads containing instructions on complying with Clinton's order. But the draft memo, which included a pledge form for each agency head to sign, was resisted by some Cabinet departments, including Justice and Treasury.
As agencies grappled with the partnership concept, union frustration grew. Administration officials acknowledged problems in getting the bureaucracy to back partnership arrangements, but pointed to a number of successful labor-management agreements reached at the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Mint and some Defense Department installations.
Still, the partnership initiative appeared to stall in recent months. The General Services Administration, for example, broke off talks with its union and announced this summer it would close eight supply centers by next year.
The union took the decision to arbitration and won a ruling that GSA violated its partnership agreement, the first signed by a federal agency. GSA has defended its decision as a business judgment aimed at stemming financial losses and appealed the arbitrator's ruling.
Bobby L. Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, cited the GSA decision during yesterday's White House meeting. Even though GSA officials have said they want to continue as union partners, "our relationship is very strained. . . . They may pick up their marbles and leave again," Harnage said in an interview.
Harnage said he came away from the White House meeting "not completely happy" because Clinton again seems to be exhorting, rather than mandating, agencies to engage in partnerships.
But Colleen Kelly, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said she was "pleased" with the decision to require agencies to file labor-management reports with OMB. "That will keep it on the front burner" and make partnerships "an agenda item for all of the agencies," she said.
In addition to the union officials and Podesta, yesterday's meeting included the government's top personnel director, Janice R. Lachance, senior OMB counselor Sally Katzen and Gore policy adviser Morley A. Winograd.
By having Clinton reaffirm his support for partnership, the administration hopes to "get the whole government kind of re-engaged," a White House official said.
"We need to jump-start the ones that are not working as well as they should be or not as effectively as we would like them to be," the official said.