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One of my favorite things

about preparing for a new

assignment is learning the

language. When I became the

AFSA State Vice President,

I had no idea that I would

also need to learn a new

language—the language of

labor law.

While I had more than 20

years of experience in the

Foreign Service, including

a tour as a labor reporting

officer, I had very little experi-

ence with labor-management

relations. I needed to get up

to speed quickly on issues

like negotiability, impact

and implementation, pre-

decisional involvement, union

bypasses and more.

This column is intended

as a primer for people who

wish to learn more about

labor management relations.


Not everything is negotia-

ble—in fact, thanks to Chap- ter 10 of the Foreign Service Act, quite a few subjects are

technically non-negotiable.

Examples include manage-

ment’s right to assign work

(e.g., reporting portfolios,

onward assignments) and

issues related to national

security. It was quite dis-

heartening for me to realize

how much of what matters to

our membership is, in reality,

“off the table.”

Impact and


Even when a subject is tech-

A Primer on Labor-Management Relations



Views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the AFSA State VP.


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nically non-negotiable, how-

ever, the union often has the

right to negotiate procedures

and appropriate arrange-

ments, also known as


and implementation.

We may not be able to

stop Diplomatic Security’s

Office of Special Investi-

gations from making the

unilateral decision to record

interviews of subjects

of investigations, but we

absolutely have the right to

negotiate the impact and

implementation of that policy

change. In other words, how

will the new policy be carried

out and how can we minimize

any potential adverse impact

on our members?



We can express our opinion

and ask the State Depart-

ment to do things differently.

Ideally, we’d like the depart-

ment to engage in


sional involvement,


AFSA a seat at the table

when they are considering

changing or implementing

certain policies. We strongly

believe (and studies of other

labor-management relation-

ships support this view) that

involving AFSA from the

beginning would help prevent

later problems; but, as of the

due date for this column, we

have made little progress on

that score.

We continue to ask the

department to come to us at

the beginning of the process

rather than once something

is practically a fait accompli.

But the department remains

reticent to do so, and many

offices deal with the union

only when required to do so.

Union Bypass

Union bypass

is another

delicate area. According to

labor law, management is not

allowed to bypass the exclu-

sive representative of the

bargaining unit and negotiate

conditions of employment

directly with other parties.

In other words, if a group

of employees in a particu-

lar bureau or as part of an

affinity group raises mat-

ters related to conditions of

employment, the department

is not allowed to engage on

such issues without including

the union.

This law doesn’t exist

to be petty or to prevent

management from gaining

a better understanding of a

specific group’s issues—it

exists because only the

exclusive representative of

the bargaining unit focuses

on the big picture, that of all

employees in the unit, not

just a subset. For example, a

group of tandem employees

propose a new policy that

sounds reasonable to them,

but which would disadvan-

tage non-tandems.

The union looks out for

such conflicts when propos-

ing policy changes and helps

prevent the department from

inadvertently committing to

something that hasn’t been

thoroughly vetted.

A Final Surprise

A final surprise for me was

that, according to the original

strategic framework between

the State Department and

AFSA, either side can submit

formal proposals, which

the other side must then

negotiate in good faith. If the

department submits a pro-

posal that we have no inter-

est in negotiating because

we want to keep things as is,

we generally cannot simply

refuse to discuss the matter.

If the two parties cannot

agree, the matter goes to

the Foreign Service Impasse

Disputes Panel, which

imposes an agreement based

on which side presents the

better argument.

So when we spend

months in formal negotia-

tions on something, it’s not

necessarily because we’ve

decided that that issue is

a priority—we are legally

required to negotiate the

matter in an effort to achieve

the best possible results for

our members.

Luckily, AFSA has a terrific

team of lawyers and legal

advisors who help me navi-

gate the system. That same

team works tirelessly to help

protect our members’ rights

in individual cases—contact

them at


the first sign of a problem.