Partnership: A Look Inside the Agencies

"An alien being has settled at many government agencies," Federal Times reported in July. "It's called labor-management partnerships." [4]

At a few agencies, the idea of labor and management working together was old hat. The Internal Revenue Service and the National Treasury Employees Union, for instance, have signed three important labor-management agreements since 1987. The most recent, which IRS Commissioner Margaret Richardson and NTEU President Robert Tobias signed in May, "virtually guarantees the union a say in the myriad organizational changes that will be part of the IRS's sweeping reorganization and tax systems modernization project." [5]

Clearly, however, the President's order for agencies to create labor-management partnerships has brought profound change to many other places. Almost every executive branch agency with a bargaining unit has an agency wide partnership council in place. In addition, partnership agreements and councils are springing up in bureaus, divisions, and field installations across government.

The Agriculture Department's partnership council, which includes representatives of two unions, has met twice a month by teleconference and quarterly in person. The Department of Housing and Urban Development brought two unions into its reorganization plans, and Secretary Henry G. Cisneros meets regularly with union officials. The Department of Veterans Affairs signed a partnership agreement with five unions, making it the largest such agreement in government. [6]

As demonstrated at Red River, better labor-management relations are important not only to the federal employees involved. They help all Americans because the absence of labor strife tends to cut federal costs. For instance, a recent agreement between the U.S. Mint and the American Federation of Government Employees helped to resolve long-standing issues at the San Francisco Mint. These included six pending equal employment opportunity complaints and another 29 informal complaints, some dating back two years. Taxpayers saved $210,000 in potential legal and administrative bills.

Naturally, the positive changes have been accompanied by a healthy share of skepticism. Some labor and management officials seem hostile to the very idea of cooperation. In some agencies with a heritage of labor-management strife, decades of distrust will not disappear overnight.

Nevertheless, the momentum toward change is tangible and exciting. As John N. Sturdivant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, put it, "For the first time in over 50 years, there is a realistic possibility for meaningful and beneficial change in the federal delivery system. Partnership presents the genuine opportunity for the innovative, bottom-line results necessary to achieve the goal of a more responsive and effective government. Our union is ready to seize the moment now."

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