Government labor, management bridging the gap


WASHINGTON -- Call them bureaucratic marriage counselors.

They are the private and public sector experts summoned by the Clinton administration to mend broken relationships between management and labor in the federal work force.

In Baltimore, federal agencies are bustling with these consultants, who oversee all facets of labor relations from labor-management retreats to role-playing exercises in the office. The goal is to bridge the often hostile divide between government workers and their supervisors.

Under an administration directive last year, federal agencies and unions were ordered to find new ways to resolve labor disputes. Both parties were instructed to create "labor-management partnerships" to handle negotiations over wages and benefits and resolve conflicts.

The administration wants agencies to move away from old-style conflict resolution -- where they often staked out adversarial positions before negotiations even began -- to "interest-based bargaining." This new strategy places greater emphasis on cooperation, requiring both parties to talk first and draft proposals last -- instead of the other way around.

"In traditional collective bargaining, each side basically tries to wear down the other to determine a winner," said Phyllis Foley, chief of the labor-management relations division in the Office of Personnel Management. "With interest-based bargaining, the whole idea is to form a good, solid relationship . . . instead of trying to determine who is the most powerful."

The Baltimore VA Medical Center held four separate training sessions in one month this spring. At those meetings, private consultants offered tips to managers and unions on how best to resolve disputes without resorting to litigation.

"The way the federal labor relations system has evolved, you've got both sides pointing fingers at each other and then going out and filing cases," said Ralph Smith, president of FPMI Communications Inc., a private firm that held the counseling seminars in Baltimore. "There is constant litigation."

Most of the counseling relies on the use of role-playing and case studies to show supervisors and union leaders what it's like to be on the other side of the labor-management struggle.

And there is plenty of advice -- some of it remarkably obvious. One of Mr. Smith's more popular suggestions: "Before you open your mouth, think."

Whatever the strategy, both sides say the labor-management relationship needs to change. More than 8,880 complaints were filed with the Federal Labor Relations Authority in fiscal 1992, with the vast majority alleging unfair labor practices, said Paco Martinez, an agency spokesman.

Why does the government have such a massive caseload?

The answer, said Mr. Smith, boils down to money. In the public sector, he said, it's relatively cost-free for a union or agency to file a complaint since taxpayers foot the bill for most of the litigation.

"Most of the time, all the unions pay for is the cost of the 29-cent stamp," he said.

Bonnie Kasten, a labor-management consultant based in St. Michaels on Maryland's Eastern Shore, said the caseload is needlessly high.

After working with federal managers and labor for nearly a year, she says there are plenty of hurdles still remaining.

pTC "Some agencies are not receptive. . . . and it's hard for them to change," Ms. Kasten said. "I was working with some labor people last week, and the old behavior -- taking management to the cleaners -- is what they got rewarded for. That's ingrained in people."

She said it will be difficult to change the way both sides view each other. "Unions originally were put in place as government watchdogs, and came into being to protect employees," Ms. Kasten said. "Management tends to envision its role in a command control orientation."

But some new labor-management relationships are already being forged, both sides say.

At the Baltimore offices of the Social Security Administration and the Health Care Financing Administration, current negotiations over merit promotions, awards and training are moving more smoothly than in years past, said John Gage, who represents workers in both agencies.

"We've customized the idea of just being creative and civilized," said Mr. Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "This has enabled us to really wipe the slate clean. I don't think we could have gotten here through old position bargaining."

Despite this progress, both sides agree that ultimately, change must come from within the government's ranks -- not from the outside.

"Labor and management shouldn't expect more out of this than they put in," said Michael E. Bennett, a United Auto Workers official who speaks from experience. Less than a decade ago, the UAW entered a partnership with Saturn, a subsidiary of General Motors.

Now Mr. Bennett is advising government workers on how to broker a similar deal. "It's a long process," he said. "The president can't legislate labor and managers to cooperate."

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