By Ann Boehm, September 14, 2021

In a recent training session, an attendee raised this scenario: “A political appointee is close friends with an agency union official, and we are pretty much being told to do whatever the union wants. Do you have any advice for how a labor relations specialist can effectively deal with this situation?”

Yes, in fact, I do. And I’m going to start with a little history lesson.

The Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute (the Statute), 5 U.S.C. Chapter 71, was passed as part of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. In 1978, Democrats held significant majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. President Carter was a Democrat. President Joe Biden was a Democratic Senator at that time.

Historically, Democrats tend to be more pro-union than Republicans. If we presume that the leaders who created the Statute leaned pro-union, then we have to consider why they bothered to create a Statute that carefully outlines rights and obligations for both agencies and unions.

In section 7116, the Statute establishes what constitutes an unfair labor practice by an agency, and also what constitutes an unfair labor practice by a union. So, the Democratic leadership in 1978 acknowledged that unions are not always right. They may even commit unfair labor practices.

Section 7114(a)(2)(A) explains that the union has a right to be present at any “formal discussion between one or more representatives of the agency and one or more employees in the unit or their representatives concerning any grievance or any personnel policy or practices or other general condition of employment.” Note that it does not say the union has a right to be present any time management meets with employees. Congress created limits.

The Statute established management rights, expressly providing in section 7106(a) management rights that are outside the duty to bargain with unions. There is also a whole section (section 7120) that establishes “Standards of conduct for labor organizations.”

I won’t bore you by going through all the provisions of the Statute, but I promise you that it is full of limitations on what Federal employee labor unions can and cannot do. The Statute, created by Democrats, does not say that unions can do whatever they want during Democratic administrations.

I acknowledge that this Administration is setting a pro-union tone. I read an article that called President Biden the most pro-union president since Lyndon Johnson. So, there’s that. I also acknowledge that the last Administration was pretty darn anti-union.

There is a shift going on here. But it does not mean that agencies must do whatever the union wants.

My advice, then, to those of you who may be dealing with a scenario like the class attendee is this:

Educate the leadership. Explain that the Statute guides all things Federal sector labor relations. Congress did find in 1978 that unions are in the public interest (section 7101(a)). But in so finding, Congress also stated this (section 7101(b)):

“It is the purpose of this chapter to prescribe certain rights and obligations of the employees of the Federal Government and to establish procedures which are designed to meet the special requirements and needs of the Government. The provisions of this chapter should be interpreted in a manner consistent with the requirement of an effective and efficient Government.” (emphasis added)

Keep that language handy. Sometimes unions have good ideas, and they can help employees and agencies work efficiently on behalf of the American people. When they do not contribute to an effective and efficient Government, they are not doing what the 1978 Democratic leadership intended. Make the leaders aware. And remember, you have a lovely guidebook that does not care about the political party in charge – the Statute. That’s good news. [email protected]

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