By Ann Boehm, April 11, 2022
This is final of my two articles on union attendance at meetings. Last month, I covered the Weingarten right. This month, it’s formal discussions.
The statutory guidance on both types of meetings is in 5 U.S.C. § 7114(a)(2). The formal discussion language is in subpart (A): “An exclusive representative of an appropriate unit in an agency shall be given the opportunity to be represented 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.”
Let me be honest. I could write a long article discussing all the intricate aspects of what is and is not a formal discussion. Fortunately, I do not have to do so. Here’s my public service announcement: In 2015, the FLRA Office of the General Counsel published “Guidance on Meetings.” It’s a must-read for anyone in Federal sector labor relations. The guidance summarizes key case law and highlights the important aspects of both formal discussions and Weingarten meetings. It’s also 43 pages long.
The goal of this article is not to regurgitate all the details in that guidance, but instead to give you my own highlights regarding formal discussions, including some key practical advice.
Why does the union have this right?
In evaluating the union’s right to be present at a formal discussion, you need to understand why they have the right in the first place. The right exists “to provide the union with an opportunity to safeguard its interests and the interests of employees in the bargaining unit–viewed in the context of a union’s full range of responsibilities under the Statute.” Dep’t of Justice, Bureau of Prisons, FCI Ray Brook, 29 FLRA 584, 589 (1987), aff’d, AFGE v. FLRA, 865 F.2d 1283 (D.C. Cir. 1989). The biggest takeaway from the “why” is to realize that the union’s right to be present at a formal discussion is to represent the entire bargaining unit, not any individual employee!
Why did Congress use the word “formal”?
The above-mentioned FLRA guidance explains this very nicely. Let me highlight the key information from that guidance (at page 5, emphasis added):
Where a meeting is brief, spontaneous or deals with a performance issue particular to the bargaining unit employee, the Authority is less likely to find that it meets the “formality” requirement. In reaching this conclusion, the Authority has noted that the word “formal” was inserted as an amendment to the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 “‘to make clear that this subsection does not require that an exclusive representative be present during highly personal, informal meetings such as counseling sessions regarding performance.’” (citing F.E. Warren AFB, Cheyenne, Wyo., 52 FLRA 149, 156 (1996) (Warren AFB).
Isn’t that great to know!
So, what exactly is formal?
The FLRA highlighted the factors to consider to determine formality in Department of Energy, Rocky Flats Field Office, 57 FLRA 754, 755 (2002): “1) the status of the individual who held the discussions; (2) whether any other management representatives attended; (3) the site of the discussions; (4) how the meetings for the discussions were called; (5) how long the discussions lasted; (6) whether a formal agenda was established for the discussions; and (7) the manner in which the discussions were conducted.” There is another potential factor — whether attendance was mandatory. DVA, Central Ark Veterans Healthcare System, 63 FLRA 169, 172 (2009).
It gets a bit tricky, though. The FLRA lists out these factors, but also has said they are “illustrative, and other factors may be identified and applied as appropriate.” VAMC, Richmond, Va., 63 FLRA 440, 443 (2009). Oh gee. That’s helpful.
If it is a formal discussion, then what?
Prior to conducting a formal discussion with unit members, management must 1) notify the union, 2) within a reasonable time in advance of the meeting, 3) allow the union representative to be present, and 4) participate. Simple enough, right?
Practically speaking, Ann Boehm of 2022 has this advice for you: If it’s not clear whether a meeting is a formal discussion or not, invite the union.
What? Ann, are you crazy?
Let me explain. Early in my career, my goal (as directed by management) was to try keep the union out of every meeting. Over time, however, I mellowed. I mean, why would you not invite the union to a meeting between management and bargaining unit employees?
Let’s face it, if a bargaining unit employee is in the meeting, it is likely that the union will hear about it. If the union attends, and management does something the bargaining unit members don’t like, the managers can always say, “Well, the union was present at the meeting.”
And let me tell you the biggest thing I learned over a fairly long labor relations career. If you invite the union, you have satisfied your obligation. If they do not attend, that’s on them. In case you hadn’t noticed, federal employees meet a lot. If you invite the union regularly, you may find that they opt not to attend.
Here’s another bit of practical advice. If you don’t invite the union, and they think it was a formal discussion, the union can file an unfair labor practice — a “gotcha.” They get to say, “Bad management, you violated the Statute when you failed to invite us to this meeting.” If you invite the union, you avoid the “gotcha.” It’s not as fun for the union.
What if the employees don’t want the union there?
Believe it or not, bargaining unit employees do not always want the union to attend their meeting with management. But as I mentioned initially, the union’s formal discussion right is intended to enable the union to represent the best interests of the entire bargaining unit. It is not the employee’s right.
Where this gets a bit bizarre is on the grievance aspect of the formal discussion rights. For example, the FLRA considers EEO complaints and MSPB appeals to be grievances, so settlement discussions in such cases can be formal discussions. In practice, a bargaining employee may have private counsel for their EEO or MSPB case, and yet the union will have a right to attend a settlement discussion between management and the employee. You will find that bargaining unit employees are often concerned about the union attending their EEO settlement meeting. If that occurs, it’s not management’s problem. The agency is obligated to notify the union, and the union has a right to attend. If the employee has a concern, they should raise it internally with the union.
I hope these two articles have helped you know when the union has a right to be present at management meetings. Just because the union wants to attend a meeting does not mean they get to attend. And that’s Good News. Boehm@FELTG.com
[Editor’s note: For more guidance on all things Labor Relations, join Ann and Joseph Schimansky for FLRA Week May 9-13. Register now.]