Labor-Management and the Political Paths of Collaboration

By Filler, Michael | The Public Manager, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Labor-Management and the Political Paths of Collaboration


Filler, Michael, The Public Manager


This year will be the 20th anniversary of President Bill Clinton's Executive Order on Labor-Management Partnerships (E.O. 12871 issued October 1, 1993). Over the past two decades, federal government employees and their union representatives have worked with federal managers to improve the delivery of service to the American public.

As President Clinton noted in the preamble to his executive order, it was through cooperation that the design and implementation of comprehensive change would take place. E.O. 12871 called for the establishment of labor-management committees or councils at appropriate levels throughout the executive branch; employees and their union representatives were to be "full partners" with management representatives to better serve the agency's customers and to satisfy its mission.

Is Collaboration Working?

What evidence demonstrated the extent to which collaboration resulted in value-added outcomes during the Clinton administration? In general, there was a dearth of hard data to show how well the collaborative model worked. A December 1997 report issued by the National Partnership Council was more about progress in establishing partnerships throughout the federal sector than quantifiable results on improved performance or better service to the public.

However Booz-Allen Hamilton conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the U.S. Customs Service's illegal drug seizure program. It published a report in 1998 and found that the agency--through its joint labor-management process--had produced $3 million in net benefits over a six-year period, which translated into a 25 percent return-on-investment (that is, for every dollar spent on partnership, it generated a benefit of $1.25).

In addition, Cornell University published a study in 2006 on the Clinton-era partnerships, based on research conducted by Marick F. Masters, Robert R. Albright, and David Eplion, which concluded "... that partnerships provided a forum for collaborative communications and joint decision making, improved the labor relations climate, reduced labor-management disputes, and modestly improved organizational performance." These advances proved to be short-lived.

At the end of Clinton's second term, then-Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) made the following observation in a December 2000 report on the crisis in human capital: "A key element in improving agency performance is the successful empowerment of employees and their direct involvement in achieving the goals of the organization."

The results of the 2000 presidential election altered the executive branch's reliance on labor-management collaboration. President George H.W. Bush believed that improved performance throughout the government could best be advanced under the president's management agenda (PMA). Early in his administration, he issued Executive Order 13203 (February 17, 2001), revoking E.O. 12871.

Most partnership councils or committees ceased to exist, absent those codified in collective bargaining agreements; some were voluntarily continued by parties who understood how collaboration improved operations and service to the public (such as the Forest Service Council). Thus, as Robert M. Tobias aptly noted in his 2004 critique on the future of federal government labor relations, without an executive order, statute, or regulation, the organizational structure and institutional support for labor-management partnerships and employee influence to help drive performance improvement efforts were eliminated.

Developments at the Department of Defense (DoD) proved to be a clear indication that the PMA approach would not embody the collaborative, interestbased principles of the Clinton executive order. In the security-conscious climate following the acts of terrorism on September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration sought authority to reform the labor and personnel systems at DoD. Though labor and management representatives met for several months on the design of a modernized system for civilian defense workers, many of the union coalition's ideas were dismissed. …

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