HOW HERITAGE HURTS UNIONS

No, we are not talking about the Heritage Foundation, which often lines up against union interests. At least not yet. The kind of heritage this piece takes aim at are all the attributes of a union that accumulate over the years to make it what it is today.  As negotiations in the federal sector gets more and more sophisticated, unions should expect that agencies are going to focus on these things to push back against union bargaining demands.  After all, why should an agency listen to a union’s demand that it discipline fairly, compensate justly, or make objective personnel decisions if the union does not do the same?  Working as the chief negotiator for a hypocritical union is not a position of strength in modern bargaining circles. Consequently, it is time that unions look around at their own governance as well as personnel policies and practices to see what must change to strengthen their demands on agencies.  If for no other reason they should do it because agencies are starting to do it. Here are a few of the most vulnerable areas when it comes time to view constitutions, by-laws, and internal procedures.

Official Time & Other Union Subsidies – Almost every unions comes to the bargaining able looking for more official time from the agency, and most agencies have developed a standard list of rebuttal arguments to push back.  But one of the more recent additions to that list of agency rebuttals is the state of the union’s finances.  Unions should expect to hear agencies question, “Why should the agency fund union official time and travel and per diem when the union has the money to fund those costs itself?” Additionally, if a union pays its officers and staff more than the federal government pays its own key executives, the agency has a pretty good argument that the union should be shouldering its own collective bargaining costs. After all, does the union president really have a tougher job than the cabinet appointee running Homeland Security, HHS, HUD, or any other cabinet level agency? In 2018, cabinet members made $205,700.  Unions are certainly free to pay larger salaries to their own executives—and some do, but it will substantially increase the odds that local leaders will get less time and other agency subsidies so top leaders can get paid a quarter of a million or more a year.

A similar argument can be made around the amount of union financial surpluses and investments.  We commend unions that build up enough reserves to weather a potential storm—although we cannot recall one happening in the last nearly sixty years of federal sector collective bargaining. However, at some point the union’s decision to continue to increases its wealth rather than give the money back to members or use it for the members’ benefit, leaves the union negotiators sitting ducks when they ask for the agencies to pay for things the union could cover itself.  Union reserves are easy to calculate from the LM-2 and IRS 1099.

Partnerships, Pre-decisional Input and Other Cooperative LM Practices – Even though the current President has barred most of the joint labor-management interactive processes of the past, that has not stopped unions from asking for these higher-quality activities to continue. But can a union really make a sincere demand if its own executives run the place like Trump runs his own corporations? Total and unquestionable control over even the tiniest of decisions is still attractive to old-school, insecure executives whether they run businesses, agencies or unions. It may even have been necessary years (decades) ago when the union was just forming and dealing with potentially fatal internal political strife.

But having a union CEO who is all-powerful is a liability today.  No agency in its right mind should consider union demands for enhanced roles for union leaders and members if the union’s leaders will not deeply involve its own local leaders and members. Day-to-day financial decisions should no longer be the exclusive domain of one person; major decisions, such as which agencies to organize, should be discussed with the board and other stakeholders before the CEO has committed the union to a course of action; the inputs and outputs of currently secret financial pots, such as union legal defense funds and key person retirement money, should be brought into the sunlight.

Information Sharing –  Unions are right to demand that agencies make all sorts of information about themselves available to the union, e.g., annual survey results, pay practices, etc.  But they should not be surprised if agencies demand that they similarly share information.  One of the hottest information demands these days is pay equity data to see where women stand in comparison to men. Unions should assemble the same kind of data on their own organizations and not be ashamed to release it.  If it suggests problems, fix them pronto.

Personnel Decisions – Unions are also right to demand lots of objectivity when it comes to significant personnel decisions, e.g., promotions, awards, reassignments, transfers, etc. But again, agencies have a good point when respond that they will only listen to those union demands when the union itself adopts similarly objective and rigorous personnel processes. Don’t be surprised if an agency negotiator asks for a copy of the union staff’s collective bargaining agreement.

Bargaining – Now that the President has staffed the FSIP with Game of Thrones characters solely interested in protecting their own political tribe (and whose every rare decision based on fairness and evidence shocks us to our core), unions are right to demand that mid-term bargaining disputes be resolved before privately hired, arbitrators to the extent possible. However, do not be stunned if agencies ask unions how they resolve bargaining disputes with their own staff.

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It may feel like agencies are taking advantage of unions when they respond to union bargaining demands with criticisms and conditions that go to how the union runs itself.  But, frankly , it should have the effect of maturing and modernizing unions.  Too many unions today are not much different than they were decades ago, bogged down by their pasts.  That is often so because the top union leaders have had decades to figure out how to suppress internal change demands against their self-interest. It is not hard to do in non-profits. They do not have to deal with the checks and balances of capitalism or national politics which have the power to dismiss a self-interested, normally immune CEO or policy overnight. So, unions need to get ready for the era of heritage bargaining. If unions ignore this, don’t come complaining to us that you were surprised by a new line of agency arguments and evidence.  However, the really big hurdle to getting progress is that the current union leaders are very, very, very, very unlikely to lead the change efforts themselves. this is going to have to come from local leaders who see the threat to their own official time and related situations.

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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