Give federal workers a voice to break the impasse

Give federal workers a voice to break the impasse
© Stefani Reynolds

One of the most dismaying aspects of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates ambassador to Turkey Trump heads to Mar-a-Lago after signing bill to avert shutdown CNN, MSNBC to air ad turned down by Fox over Nazi imagery MORE’s speech on Saturday was that he showed total disregard for the federal workers and contractors who are not getting paid even though some of them are required to work, others are not able to go to work and some are neither working nor will ever get paid for the time lost. 

It is time for all federal workers and contractors, and indeed for the American public they serve, to stand up and say enough is enough: Stop holding these workers hostage to a political impasse that good faith negotiations could easily resolve. 

Federal employees may need to raise their own voices to make this happen. They should demand an immediate end to the shutdown and perhaps tak a play from the Google employees' playbook and call for a day of action if the shutdown continues.

Moreover, like the Google employees, federal workers should demand a seat at the table in negotiations over how to best solve our border security and immigration problems once and for all.

This would be consistent with a basic principle of employment relations we study and teach and that wise managers and labor leaders know and practice: Those closest to the problem know the most about what additional supports they need to do their jobs well.

So here is an outline of a proposal I would urge the federal workforce to make.

1. End the shutdown now, immediately, or there will be a day of action coming soon in which employees across all federal agencies will stand together to protest the injustices and hardships the shutdown is imposing on them and the public they serve.

Let’s see what happens if federal government executives, middle managers, supervisors and front-line workers and contractors all stop doing their jobs for a day.

Obviously, the country would come to halt; airplanes couldn’t fly; borders would go unprotected; Social Security claims and checks would be delayed; the president and members of Congress would have to carry their own lunch to work, etc. Just imagine a day without the federal workforce on the job.

2. Once everyone is back to work, negotiate an agreement on how to best allocate the resources the border security and immigration agencies and staff need to do their jobs and address the most critical challenges they face.

Again consistent with best practice employment relations, give the people closest to the real problems a seat at the table in deciding how to best allocate the resources provided. Don’t assume political leaders in Washington know best what’s needed any more than wise CEOs assume they can run their organizations without input from their managers and front-line workers.

Allow federal employees to elect broadly representative agency level and work unit councils and teams, and charge them with making recommendations for how to use the resources the president and Congress authorize to improve the services they are responsible for delivering. 

For this particular situation, bring state and local leaders in the border states into these discussions — they too know best the challenges their communities face.

The good news in the president’s address is that he in fact outlined a set of proposals that provide a starting point for doing this once employees are back to work.

He proposed, as did a number of congressional leaders in the past, money for humanitarian relief; money for additional staffing; money for additional physical “barriers” where needed; and extension of DACA and temporary immigration status for those already in the country. 

The specific features of these proposals are not acceptable in present form to the Democrats, and if the workforce had a voice, would not be acceptable to them either. But as a mediator, I would say to the other parties at the table, let’s treat these as opening proposals and work to improve them.

For example, if we add up the amount of money the president’s proposals put on the table it comes to about $7.3 billion. A mediator would ask how can that amount of additional resources best be used to improve border security now and over a reasonable timespan. 

Again, let’s follow the basic principle — listen to those closest to the problem. In this case, those closest are the border security managers, technical experts, front-line employees and the city and state officials in the border states. 

So create a Border Security Commission that includes these groups to make recommendations to the Congress and president on how to best use these funds, including for further physical barriers where warranted, additional staffing, technological upgrades, humanitarian assistance or other worthy purposes. 

One could structure membership in such as commission by having the president, Senate, House of Representatives, border state governor and employees of the border workforce each chose one representative to serve on the commission. 

One could go further and structure the commission like the Military Base Commission — the Congress and president can only accept or reject, not change, its recommendations. That way, no individual body in Washington can again hold hostage those working hard to do their jobs.

In summary, if those closest to the real problems had a voice, they would demand an immediate end to the shutdown, promise direct action if the shutdown continues and call for a seat at the table in deciding how to best use the additional resources committed to helping them do their jobs and better serve the public. Let’s put them back to work, give them a voice and listen to their advice.

Thomas Kochan is the George Maverick Bunker professor of management, a professor of work and employment Research, and the CoDirector of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management.