Federal Unions Hail 'Reinvention'


Why are the federal government's largest public-employee unions rallying around the Clinton administration's National Performance Review -- even though the report calls for chopping 250,000 slots out of the federal work force?

A quick answer is that the cuts won't fall, for the most part, on rank-and-file workers in the unions. Vice President Gore's task force aims instead to cut heavily into Washington's army of 700,000 managers, supervisors, personnel and procurement specialists, inspectors general and auditors -- the very folks who now spend so much of their time directing, controlling, checking up on and auditing the other 1.4 million employees.

The federal government's "systems of overcontrol and micromanagement" have a "suffocating impact" on line managers and workers, says the Gore committee report.

But the National Performance Review and its follow-up -- a new National Partnership Council of top federal officials and public union leaders being appointed by President Clinton -- has import far beyond picking whose jobs go in a slimming down of the federal establishment.

At issue is nothing less than creating -- if it can be done -- a whole new approach to labor-management relations for the federal government, and by example for states, counties and cities across the nation.

The question is whether new incentives for high work-force productivity, introduced by such private-sector pioneers as General Electric, GM-Saturn, Xerox and Intel, can replace the often bitter, adversarial tone of federal-union relations over the last 30 years.

The payoff for the federal government would be not just in dollars but higher efficiency and citizen satisfaction with a dramatically more "customer-oriented" federal work force. The carrot for the unions is, for the first time, a seat at the table: to be full-fledged partners with government managers trying to organize the workplace, solve problems, motivate teams of workers and develop alternative dispute-resolution techniques.

"We federal employees," notes John Sturdivant, president of the 200,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, "are continually bashed and trashed as being ineffective and inefficient." All leading federal-worker unions have concluded, he says, that they now need to "leapfrog" the abusive politicians "and really bond with the taxpayers, by improving the service they're provided."

Union attitudes are also shifting with hard economic times. Mr. Sturdivant has been telling unionists reluctant to change that they need to do a "reality check" by noting such current personnel cuts as IBM (85,000 jobs), Sears (50,000), Boeing (30,000) and proposals in New York City to trim 30,000 jobs. One would be a "fool," he argues, to claim the federal government can't slim down.

"We need not just to reinvent government, but to reinvent the union," says Mr. Sturdivant: "I expect a smaller government but a larger, stronger union." The government unions will gain, he predicts, by pushing such innovations as "gainsharing" for effective worker teams and trying to deep-six government managers' arbitrary ratings of individual workers.

The unions are cheering the National Performance Review's call to tear up most of the 10,000-page Federal Personnel Manual that's now enforced by the Office of Personnel Management. Instead, all departments and agencies would be allowed to recruit directly for positions, simplify job classifications, and then be held accountable for their own performance.

Unions are less enthusiastic about the Gore task force's proposals to contract out more federal functions, or to cut in half the time it takes to discharge non-performing workers. The new National Partnership Council will start bargaining out those issues, to prepare a whole new personnel statute for Congress to consider.

The biggest challenges, though, may lie in government as a monopoly and how long change will take. Unlike corporations, the federal government has no keen competitor -- no Nissan, Mercedes or Toyota -- to force continued improvement and shedding of inefficient divisions.

The fundamental, sometimes wrenching, change to achieve a high-performance government work force will take years of training and reorientation. Thousands of managers and union stewards will have to shift their whole way of viewing the workplace, and their own jobs. Some agencies are likely to "get it" and reform much faster than others.

Likewise, as the reform ideas begin to spread to the state and local level, change is likely to be spotty and frustratingly slow. Many government managers viscerally oppose unions; many unions lag far behind the times by defending seniority rights instead of merit, and opposing work-force reduction willy-nilly.

But government is the one area where unionism is spreading today. The idea of unions as productive partners with government carries such promise that every American has a stake in seeing it succeed.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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