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Fed Unions Say They’re Not at Table for Talks on Future of Work

Nov. 1, 2019, 10:45 AM

Labor groups are being excluded from discussions about the future of work in the federal government, union officials said.

“The administration has closed off every opportunity for constructive dialogue” on the issue, said Jacqueline Simon, public policy director at the American Federation of Government Employees.

“Last fall, the White House held a ‘summit’ on civil service reform and workforce training in connection with new technology, and no representatives of the federal workforce were invited. In fact, AFGE formally asked to be included and we were rebuffed,” she said, referring to the Federal Workforce Symposium held by the White House Office of Management and Budget in September 2018. AFGE represents about 700,000 government workers, making it the largest federal employee union.

Labor unions want a seat at the table as decisions about technology that affect their members’ jobs are being made, said Paul Shearon, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents about 80,000 public- and private-sector employees, including white-collar workers at NASA and the Department of Defense.

In many cases, front-line employees are only hearing about decisions after they’ve been made, he said. Agencies—and ultimately taxpayers—will miss out if unions are shut out of these discussions, Shearon said.

Labor-management forums, established by President Barack Obama as a way to encourage agencies and unions to engage with each other on a broad range of issues, were abolished in September 2017. President Donald Trump said they hadn’t been effective in promoting collaboration.

Ending the forums cut off an avenue for exchanging ideas on technology’s effect on federal workplaces, Simon and Shearon said in separate interviews. About half of the nation’s 2.1 million civilian federal employees are represented by unions.

The White House and its Office of Management and Budget didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Too Focused on ‘Short-Term Battles’

Federal employee unions are correct in thinking they’re being excluded from future-of-work discussions, said Don Kettl, a professor at the University of Texas-Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. “Administration officials have made no secret of their wish to marginalize the public employee unions,” he said.

But the unions share a portion of the blame, too, for paying too much attention to “short-term battles” and not enough to “the long-term implications of the future of work,” he said.

“Public employee unions, for the most part, have focused on fighting to keep jobs. That, in turn, has weakened their position in shaping the future of the workforce and the jobs of their members,” Kettl said.

At least one upcoming event being held by a nongovernmental group also appears to be leaving out labor.

The agenda for the National Academy for Public Administration’s fall meeting Nov. 7-8, with the theme of “Grand Challenges in Public Administration” and a number of sessions on future-of-work issues, shows panels with agency officials, nonprofit heads, and academics—but no union representatives. NAPA is a Washington-based nonprofit created through a congressional charter in 1967.

“The Academy’s annual meeting is principally for Fellows of the Academy and so we attempt to maximize participation of Fellows in the agenda,” NAPA President and CEO Terry Gerton said in an email.

“Certainly, labor unions have a role in developing solutions for many of the Grand Challenges, especially in connecting individuals to meaningful work, modernizing and reinvigorating the public service, and fostering social equity—and we look forward to engaging them in our efforts,” she said.

Not Always Responsive?

Unions were invited to participate—but didn’t—in “civil service modernization dialogues” held by the Senior Executives Association, said the group’s president, Bill Valdez. The SEA represents the interests of about 7,000 career senior executives at federal agencies.

The roundtable events were hosted in the summer and fall of 2018 by the SEA and Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a think tank that describes its mission as “promoting the principles of individual, economic, and political freedom.”

“It’s been my observation that unions aren’t focused on the future of work,” Valdez said. They’re more concerned with dealing with immediate threats such as Trump’s May 2018 executive orders weakening union representation of the federal workforce, he said. The orders were recently revived by a federal appeals court, which likely will intensify existing labor disputes between the Trump administration and unions representing agency employees.

Federal unions need to get more involved with issues such as automation and artificial intelligence, Valdez said. Technology will free up federal employees to do more high-level work, which should be welcomed by the unions, he said.

No Monopolies on Good Ideas

“No one would argue that management shouldn’t be at the table” when future of work is being discussed, “but assuming that management has all the perspectives is just silly,” said Lee Stone, western federal area vice president for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

Employees have information about how work gets done at federal agencies that’s directly relevant to discussions of how it can be automated or modernized, and they shouldn’t be excluded from the conversation, he said.

“Management will never come forward and say what it’s doing badly,” Stone said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at; Terence Hyland at