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Defense Council Spawns Labor-Management Partnerships

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 20, 1996 – Federal labor unions can't legally strike, but they can -- and do -- challenge managers to improve working conditions.

Labor-management disputes can disrupt government operations and cost considerable sums to resolve, said Diane Disney, deputy assistant secretary of defense for civilian personnel policy. President Clinton issued an executive order in October 1993 calling for a revolutionary change in federal labor-management relations, she said, the result being the formation of the National and Defense Partnership councils.

"The [DoD] council has taken important steps to transform labor-management relations from the traditional adversarial mode to a cooperative mode based on partnership and mutual respect," Disney said.

A series of labor-management partnership agreements validate the council, according to Frederick Pang, assistant secretary of defense for force management policy. As a result, Pang nominated the Defense Partnership Council this year for the annual Public Service Excellence Award. He cited several labor-management agreements, including one that broke a 20-year impasse concerning overtime pay between the Naval Sea Systems Command and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, and another that saved San Antonio Air Logistics Center some $2 million in litigation costs.

"In a time of budget austerity and the need to cut costs, these examples speak strongly of partnership's value to DoD," Pang said. "Partnership efforts, spearheaded by the Defense Partnership Council, are yielding real benefits in the effort to make DoD work better and cost less."

Last month, the DoD council received a special award from the National Partnership Council. This recognized the joint efforts of DoD and the American Federation of Government Employees, the Association of Civilian Technicians, the Federal Education Association, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, and National Association of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees.

To improve labor-management relations at defense installations, the Defense Partnership Council shares information with labor groups and managers, performs outreach services, sets up working groups to handle specific issues and provides partnership training.

"We make sure the heads of the national unions and their management counterparts across the components know immediately of significant initiatives affecting civilian personnel," Disney said.

For example, she said, when the federal worker furlough loomed during the budget impasse last fall, the council asked DoD Comptroller John Hamre for the latest information to inform managers and labor organizations throughout DoD. Similarly, when privatization became an issue last fall, the council received and passed on information from Joshua Gotbaum, then assistant secretary of defense for economic security.

Also, when the 1995 Base Closure and Realignment Commission announcement was about to occur, in line with the principles of partnership, Disney used her Presidents' Roundtable to get the word out fast.

"We brought together representatives of the services, the unions and employee associations, and a couple of BRAC principals to brief the decision and answer questions," Disney said. "We said, 'This is what's going to happen, here are the rights that exist, and here's the schedule.'"

Just before reporters received the final base realignment and closure announcement, couriers delivered it to the seven national federal employee unions represented on the council. "They got the list before the press and had a chance to know what was happening before the questions came at them," Disney said.

The extra effort kept management and labor ahead of the curve and helped them maintain good working relationships, she said, adding, "that's what the partnership is all about."

Using a home page on the World Wide Web, the council publishes case studies of successful partnership programs. A review of these case studies provides a quick lesson in how to work in partnership, said Kenneth Oprisko, Labor Relations Branch chief for the Defense Civilian Personnel Management Service. "We've centered our emphasis on partnership development and training, specifically as a new way of doing business," he said.

To train the trainers, Oprisko added, the Civilian Personnel Management Service brought on Christina Sickles Merchant from the Federal Labor Relations Authority. "She prepares us to go out to installations and teach them how to resolve their disputes," he said.

Because the partnership concept is new, Oprisko said, field training is intensive. "Our training teams help develop systems and work with struggling partnerships or bargaining relationships," he said. "We tailor on-site assistance to their specific situation."

"The budget is driving us to make a lot of changes to the department," Disney added. "To the extent that we can foster better relations and work together to take care of employees, we'll all get through the difficulty much better."

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