HOW UNION LEADERS KILL PARTNERSHIP POTENTIAL
Although it is fashionable among unions to blame managers for the widespread failure of partnership, there is a decent argument that union leaders themselves helped pound the stake through the heart of that very worthy experiment. How? “Integrity” is a good one word answer. No union leader will enjoy hearing this, but if we stick our heads in the sand and pretend the problem does not exist, we might as well be the kind of managers we so often condemn.
Let’s take a hypothetical situation. Suppose you are a high-level union leader trying to convince an agency executive to engage in greater partnership activity, namely, pre-decisional involvement (PDI) of unit employees in any management deliberations or analyses that will impact the work place. Further assume that the executive is not anti-union and even a little bit enlightened about how to manage a modern work force. In other words, he is a fence-sitter on the question of unit employee pre-decisional involvement and potentially could be convinced to try it.
As a union leader, you can talk to the executive about all the Executive Orders promoting employee pre-decisional involvement, reference some examples of success around the country or even within the federal government, and ask for his support to the point of pleading. Perhaps you even put a collective bargaining concession or two on the table to sweeten the deal. But if you may think you have done everything you can to make the case, you are wrong.
How do you run the union? Do you give pre-decisional involvement to staff and local leaders in significant decisions you make? Do you make information widely available to them as opposed to stove-piping it so that the only way one part of the union knows what another part is doing is if you tell them? Do you put teams together to develop on their own recommendations or do you sit in almost every meeting or otherwise control the outcome?
We union leaders are fooling ourselves if we think good agency leaders open to employee pre-decisional involvement are not factoring into their decision what we do in our own organizations. Even if they do not make the link on their own, it is one of the first things managers opposed to partnership confront the open-minded executive about.
There are no shortages of time-tested adages applicable here, e.g., walk the talk, honesty is the best policy, and don’t put the cart before the horse. If union leaders want partnership and PDI for members, they have to sell it based on their own use of and success with it. They have to make information broadly available to staff and local leaders, honestly ask for input, turn off the subtle control mechanisms, trust their own ability to manage conflict positively, and support approaches they may not personally have developed. Asking for it under any other circumstances just undermines their own credibility and diminishes the union in the eyes of even those managers trying to help
(No one should read this as a FEDSMILL endorsement of partnership and formal PDI. We have our doubts it is worth it.)