Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Public sector labor relations in the "new normal"

Given how recent legislative events in Madison have transformed the lives of local government administrators in Wisconsin, it is ironic that hundreds of county and municipal managers from across the country have descended on Milwaukee this week for the annual conference of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA).

The conference, which began Sunday and lasts through today, includes seminars on a variety of public administration topics, such as performance measurement, citizen engagement and priority-based budgeting. Not surprisingly, another seminar topic was "Labor Relations in the Age of the New Normal," which I had the privilege to moderate.

My mission was to launch the discussion by bringing the audience up to speed on what exactly occurred here in Wisconsin, which I did by laying out the core components of the state budget repair bill and 2011-13 state budget (my PowerPoint can be accessed here). Then, I turned the stage over to two municipal managers from Wisconsin and one from Michigan (where legislative initiatives are similarly transforming public sector labor relations) to discuss how they were managing their labor challenges in this "new normal."

Those leaders expressed several interesting insights, including the following:

  • One of the participants argued that whether or not the demands for changes in public sector collective bargaining and employee cost-sharing are politically motivated, the "evidence supported the premise." In other words, the failure of many local governments to respond to changing economic conditions and the changed political environment, and their reliance instead on continuing to negotiate labor contracts on a "business as usual" basis, had forced state elected leaders to take labor negotiations "out of their hands."

  • Another panelist was more critical of the tactics adopted by many legislatures and governors, calling those tactics a "Neanderthal" approach to managing employee relations that "presumes that employee morale doesn't matter and that we can incent superior performance even when putting the squeeze on public servants."

  • Several panelists noted that the decision by elected officials to exempt public safety employees from collective bargaining changes had made their jobs as managers even more difficult, as the existence of two distinct classes of employees (public safety and non-public safety) had generated both morale and logistical concerns.

  • Each of the participants agreed that direct employee engagement about the political and fiscal issues facing their governments was more important than ever. In addition, all agreed that communication with employees should continue "as if the balance of power in labor relations hasn't shifted" and that opportunities for labor-management collaboration on ideas for improving efficiency and cutting costs should be pursued aggressively.

  • One panelist suggested that the new normal will cause "managers to manage more" and "leaders to lead more." By that he meant that the existence of labor contracts and strong unions often was used as a crutch by municipal managers to avoid making difficult decisions or seeking efficiencies that would negatively impact their employees.

The discussion by the three panelists - as well as 45 minutes of questions and comments from colleagues - revealed the difficult position in which many local government administrators find themselves. Fully cognizant of their fiscal challenges and public demands to "do more with less," yet sympathetic to the livelihoods and morale of their often under-appreciated employees, they are torn between optimizing both their new tools and the performance of their workforce.

How appropriate that these lofty issues would surface here in Wisconsin, the ground zero for a new approach to public sector labor-management relations.

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