Unions, managers ending adversarial relationship


WASHINGTON -- Within the next two weeks, leaders of federal employee unions will sit down with departmental executives to work out a collaborative labor-management approach such as that used in private industry.

With an executive order earlier this month, President Clinton created the National Partnership Council, a panel of labor and civil service decision-makers. The two historically warring camps are reaching out to each other in the wake of the National Performance Review, a sweeping bureaucratic overhaul to make government work better.

"With the stroke of a pen, the president has dismissed 30 years of adversarial labor-management relations," said a coalition of union presidents in a recent statement. "We will work to eliminate the current legal barriers that stifle employee creativity and instead create an environment where workers and their ideas are regarded as valued assets."

The heads of the National Federation of Federal Employees, the National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees last month extracted a promise from Vice President Al Gore that the council would be created. The unions, who had complained about limited access to Mr. Gore's reinventing government task force, met privately with him and emerged with a greater cooperative spirit, one labor official said.

The private sector model for collaborative management-labor approach comes from Mr. Gore's home state, Tennessee. At the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, General Motors Corp. managers and United Auto Workers representatives hold regular meetings so that management can hear assembly workers' ideas for improving products and unions can help supervisors cut costs.

The federal partnership council will convene for sessions likely to last all day as they review the plan to reinvent government and try to come up with ways to achieve it. Already, unions support the White House plan to offer early retirement options to some employees, but further staff cuts will have to be handled more delicately.

"What will come to [panel members] will be failures to act as partners," said Phillip Kete, NFFE staff attorney.

For example, the panel could discuss cases when Veterans Administration hospital managers announce changes in working conditions without consulting first with the unions; or when an Air Force base commander asks the unions for ideas to complete a mission with fewer resources and never hears back from them.

More important than the particular cases, Mr. Kete noted, is the end of mistrust between labor and managers.

"The council will be developing a relationship between people who have been trained and have gained experience as adversaries," he explained. "This will change that at every level."

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