By William Wiley, July 11, 2017

We get so many good questions. This one comes from a class participant in our fabulous FELTG FLRA Law Week (next offered in Washington, DC November 13-17):

Dear FELTG Labor Law Semi-Experts (I say “semi” because as you teach, no human on Earth really understands federal labor law)-

I took your FLRA class last spring in Washington, D.C.  (It was very helpful, thanks!)  I’m pretty sure that at some point during the course, you offered that we could send you a question afterwards. I’d like to take you up on your kind offer.

My question is whether (or when?) a local CBA always “trumps” an Agency policy, or if that holding is limited to “localized” policies.  I’m looking at cases such as Broadcasting Board of Governors v. AFGE (66 FLRA 380), that seems to indicate this is well settled.  But, in an environment (such as we have here at my agency), where we have unions that have National Consultation Rights (NCR), I’m trying to reconcile these rulings with my basic understanding of the Union’s very limited rights in NCR, and that the Agency is permitted to make universal policies at a national level as long as they go through NCR (local CBAs be damned).

In other words – if, at a local field center, the local management agrees to terms on, say, office workspace, with their local union, enter into a CBA articulating those provisions, and then later on, the national agency management comes up with a national level policy on office workspace, that is inconsistent with the terms of the CBA, but properly goes through the NCR process.  Which policy controls at the local field center?  The national level Agency policy?  Or the local policy as articulated in the CBA?  It just doesn’t make sense to me that a local manager’s actions at the local level (in signing the CBA) could essentially prevent national management from having a universal policy.

Any thoughts on this?

And our FELTG response. Sad!

Dear FLRA Law Week participant-

Very nice to hear from you. As for your question, the union agreement always trumps an agency’s new policies – even when there are national consultation rights – with only two exceptions:

  1. The agency can demonstrate that the new policy is related to the “necessary functioning” of the agency and the change is in response to an “overriding exigency.” See SEC v. FLRA, 568 F.3d 990 (D.C. Cir., 2009).
  2. The new policy is implementing a new law (the incontrovertible law part of the new policy is effective right away; the agency still must bargain I & I and any flexible parts of the law).

As for your hypothetical, as much as it makes our eyes burn, if local management agrees to office space of a specific size, and the agency head later decrees that office space will be less than that, the agency is obligated to continue the bargained-for office space if and until it can bargain its way out of it.

The example we sometimes use in class is from NIH, one of our favorite clients. Years ago, the Secretary of HHS declared through a new policy that the work spaces within HHS would be smoke-free. He reasoned that given the word “health” in the name of his agency, he should prohibit things that by their very nature are not healthy. Great reasoning for the new policy. However, it conflicted with several local CBAs, including NIH, which had old provisions allowing designated smoking areas. There’s a big billboard-size sign as you enter the NIH main campus outside of DC that says, “Welcome to NIH, a smoke-free environment.” Every time I walk past it, I want to add an * and a footnote that says, “*Unless you’re in the bargaining units for law enforcement officers or fire fighters.”

Deb and I recently taught a program at the Naval Medical Center, Camp Lejeune. Same scenario. Years ago, the Secretary of Defense issued a policy prohibiting smoking in the health care facilities within DoD. Well, the CBA employees at Camp Lejeune are still smoking away because it’s been in their contract forever. Hey, it’s North Carolina. They’ve got to do something with all that tobacco.

The theory is this: When your local management agrees to certain office space terms in the CBA, it is actually acting on behalf of the agency head when doing so. And that agreement controls any later agency heads who come along who would like to see another policy. That’s one of the Big Deals we have to deal with when we get a new administration like we are in the processing of doing now. The new politicals come in thinking that they can shake things up (making America great again) and guys like us have to tell them that Congress passed a law 40 years ago that limits that authority in a unionized environment. The most we can do is propose changes either term or mid-term, then take them to FSIP when the union impasses us. There, at FSIP, President Trump’s seven political appointees – who serve at the pleasure of the President – will no doubt conclude that the agency head’s new policy will be the new CBA provision for office space.

What’s that? You’re telling me that the President recently fired all the FSIP members and has not yet replaced them? Oh, well. I’m sure he’ll get around to it eventually. Because you can’t implement the new policy from on high until you bargain your way out from under it. And you can’t complete bargaining without agreement until we get at least four new FSIP appointees.

The fact that there are national consultation rights does not diminish the obligation to negotiate. Consultation and negotiation are two different things, as you point out. The law is specific as to what must be negotiated (not consulted about). If the new policy included any changes to negotiable working conditions, they must be negotiated.

Not the answer you wanted, not the answer we necessarily want to give. But until Congress does something (Ha!), this is our world. [email protected]

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