The statute has been in place for over 30 years now, but FLRA case law guidance on what is and is not a formal discussion is still next to useless for practitioners.  (Check out “FLRA FUBAR: The Formal Discussion Mess.”) But, as bad as it is today after more than 200 FLRA formal discussions decisions, it is about to get worse thanks to automation.

For most of the 30+ years of the statute a formal discussion involved a face-to-face meeting between unit employees and management officials.  Even when teleconferences started to replace face-to-face interactions it was not difficult for the union rep to involve himself in the meeting.  The rep could ask questions, make statements, and ask for clarifications all in real time.

But now we are seeing managers “meet” with employees through on-line webinars that employees watch when it fits their individual schedules, transmit information via on-line PowerPoint presentations employees review alone over the Internet at times they choose, and massive video hook-up town hall meetings where the manager presents her material and then answers selected questions solicited in advance from the audience without any chance for spontaneous or interactive two-way communication. Other variations include e-meetings via the exchange of successive two-way instant messages between the manager and her employees, as well as Skype-like discussions with two or more employees during the day and even YouTube and Twitter-like communications.  All of these raise the questions of when are they formal discussions and how can the union participate as a representative in these automated successors to the traditional face-to-face discussion.

One approach unions could take would be to wait for FLRA to answer all the questions generated by new-age advances. But, we suspect that by the time it does holographs, telepathy, and time-travel will have overtaken today’s complications.  So, the alternative to FLRA leadership are negotiations addressing what the individual parties will consider to be formal discussions and how the union will be able to exercise a representational role in the meeting.  Here are some thoughts we have had on that.

The union’s fundamental goal as “formal meetings” evolve to “formal-e-meetings” should to be retain what the law gives them today, namely, advance notice of the meeting, access to the meeting itself, the opportunity to ask questions and state the union’s position on the issues covered—even if it conflicts with management’s advice. Advance notice and access to e-meetings where everyone hooks-up simultaneously should not be hard to retain. However, if employees can watch some e-presentation whenever they individually feel like it, access becomes a challenge. Similarly, asking questions under that format and stating union positions will demand creative solutions.

One way to solve some of those problems would be to demand pre-implementation access to the e-meeting deliver format.  For example, if the agency is going to require employees to view a PowerPoint and send any questions to an e-mail address for a response, it can insist that the agency address its  questions in advance and modify the PowerPoint if needed.  It can ask to insert material into the webinar, PowerPoint, etc. that shows the union’s position on a covered issue, and it can demand access to the email box so it can see the questions and track the answers.  Another protection would be to insist that the union rep be given the e-mail address of every employee in the meeting or group address so that the union can communicate with the involved employees more privately.

If you have other ideas, send them along or post them below so that we can turn your creativity into power for everyone.

About AdminUN

FEDSMILL staff has over 40 years of federal sector labor relations experience on the union as well as management side of the table and even some time as a neutral.

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