Just as successful partnerships share many of the same traits, struggling labor-management partnerships are beleaguered by many of the same problems. Here are some of the most common barriers to partnership that we saw in agencies across the government.
1. No Common Understanding of What Partnership Means
One of the comforts of traditional labor relations is the clearly defined role for labor and management outlined in statutes, regulations, and collective bargaining agreements. Partnership recasts these roles, blurring the traditional union-management lines. Figuring out where those lines are drawn and what partnership really means can be a major roadblock for many agencies and unions.
Labor and management face a number of difficult questions when they seek to form a partnership. What are the critical elements of a genuine partnership? What are the roles of labor and management in a partnership vs. a traditional relationship? Does partnership mean that labor and management make decisions jointly on every issue? How do partners deal with issues that are outside the scope of bargaining? What is the connection between collective bargaining and partnership? Who should sit on the partnership council? Who sets the agenda? Are some issues off limits?
There are no simple answers. Responses will vary among partnerships and from agency to agency, and answers that seem sensible today often need revisiting over time as relationships mature. Topics once considered non-negotiable or just too difficult to address may become ripe for discussion as the partnership builds trust and a track record of success. But even if some ambiguity is to be expected, it is vital to the success of any emerging partnership for the union and management to have a reasonably clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities at the outset.
A related issue often frustrating labor and management is the tension between partnership and other reinvention goals. To some union officials and even some managers, reinvention is not defined primarily by worker empowerment or labor-management cooperation, but rather by workforce reductions, budget cuts, privatization, and other strategies that are viewed as direct threats to job security. In some cases, the threat of job cuts and the focus on “doing more with less” have threatened to undermine the principles on which partnerships are built.
Labor and management can and often do work through these issues in ways that actually strengthen their relationships. When agencies and unions partner early in the process, communicate openly and honestly, and try seriously to meet the interests of the other party, reasonable solutions can be crafted. Nevertheless, several union reports described non-existent or dysfunctional partnerships, which they attribute to unresolved tensions between partnership and other reinvention goals.
2. Lack of Trust and Mutual Respect
Trust and mutual respect are the cornerstones of any successful labor-management partnership. The Federal Government’s long and well-documented history of adversarial labor-management relations sometimes conspires to keep trust and mutual respect in short supply. In struggling relationships, labor and management are often unable or unwilling to move beyond past rancor and disputes. This often undermines efforts to build trust and form a more constructive relationship. Trust cannot be imposed. It takes time to build. Success is usually achieved in small steps.
One of the most effective strategies for building trust is open and honest communications. The parties must understand that the patterns of communication found in traditional labor-management relations are often wholly inappropriate in this new setting. By taking the time to rethink and relearn how they communicate, agencies and unions can create a climate where trust and respect can grow and partnership can succeed.
3. Turnover and Changes in Leadership
When it comes to partnership and interest-based bargaining, the common wisdom says to separate the people from the issues. Labor and management are taught to focus on the problems at hand and not on the personalities involved. While this advice makes good sense in theory, labor-management relations is still a people business. Success depends more often than not on the people involved and the way they relate to one another.
Not surprisingly, we found that successful labor-management partnerships are often the result of a strong personal relationship between management and union officials. While personal relationships can provide an early foundation of trust and respect, problems can arise when key people leave the organization. If the trust and respect that marked the relationship has not filtered down to other management and union leaders, the partnership may get off track.
A good example of an agency facing significant turnover of key people is the Department of Defense. Here is how DoD described the challenge:
“Turnover, a problem for any labor-management relationship, is a central factor in the highly mobile military . . . Partnership takes time to develop and is dependant on the players involved. Attitudes play a major role in the success or failure in the partnership. Both management and union respondents indicated it was difficult to establish a successful partnership when the members left due to military rotation, union elections, employee turnover, a base realignment, a base closure or a reduction in force.”
This problem can be addressed by careful succession planning and appropriate training for parties new to the partnership. Bringing new members to partnership council meetings as early and as often as possible exposes them to an effective labor-management relationship and gives them a chance to see how it works. Providing new members with training in consensual forms of dispute resolution and decision-making gives them tools to be productive members of the council early in their tenure. By finding ways to institutionalize partnership, both the agency and the union can increase the chances that it will flourish in spite of changing membership.
4. Inconsistent Commitment to Partnership
In some agencies, commitment to partnership is not absent altogether but is spotty and inconsistent. We sometimes see strong partnerships at the national level while local field facilities struggle with even the rudiments of partnership. Conversely, it is not uncommon to see instances where local partnerships are flourishing even while national leaders are unable to work together constructively. This phenomenon is not limited to the management side of the equation. Federal employee unions can also demonstrate an inconsistent commitment to partnership.
When the commitment to partnership is not visible and firm throughout the agency and the union, employees get mixed signals about how important partnership really is. It is extremely disheartening for a partnership council to work through a problem only to find its solution unacceptable to top management. It is equally disheartening to have management implement those solutions but see them falter due to lack of support from front-line workers. This barrier can be overcome only by unifying all tiers of an organization behind a common vision of partnership.