Leadership Corner

Forest Service and NFFE negotiate new Master Agreement

September 20th, 2019 at 2:52PM
Portrait of Chief Vicki Christiansen in uniform.
Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen

I am pleased to announce the completion of a new Master Agreement between the Forest Service and the National Federation of Federal Employees. The Master Agreement defines rights for employees, union representatives, and management, and lays out procedures to be followed on matters affecting working conditions. The new agreement (internal link) is effective as of September 13, 2019, replacing the 2016-2019 Master Agreement.

Since 2017, there have been some significant changes to Federal sector collective bargaining law and policy, including four Executive Orders. Taken together, these changes represent the biggest changes in labor relations in the federal sector since the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.
The NFFE Forest Service Council represents about 20,000 employees, 57% of the workforce, and is the largest bargaining unit in the agency. This new agreement was developed in record time by the union and management negotiating teams, with significant savings to the government compared to previous Master Agreement negotiations, which have taken years to complete.

Our employees are our greatest asset in sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The new Master Agreement reflects recent changes in the federal collective bargaining policy, but it continues the Forest Service commitment to maintaining constructive and cooperative relationships with our union colleagues. As management and the union work together to adjust our working relationship under the new Master Agreement, we are committed to living our agency core values of service to employees and interdependence between the employees and management of the Forest Service.

The new Master Agreement preserves the commitment of Management and the Union to work together to identify issues and solve problems that affect the workforce. NFFE President Melissa Baumann expressed optimism in the new agreement, ‘As my fellow negotiator Ken Dinsmore reminds me, we accomplished what many considered impossible. But, only time will tell how much Agency leadership values the union’s role in representing employees within the context of this new agreement.’

This new Master Agreement significantly changes the process for how management and union representatives work together by discontinuing formal union-management partnership councils and required union involvement before decisions are made, in favor of informal union-management collaboration, and required union involvement in implementing management decisions. The new MA will shift an estimated $560,000 per year in salary costs for union representatives back to agency work and returns union offices in government facilities to mission operational use. 

You may wonder what these negotiations looked like. It was certainly not easy, and both management and the union walked away from the negotiation table with some compromises. Our Code and Commitments, were at the forefront of our approach to negotiations. For example, the Union was able to maintain the opportunity to represent employees on Agency paid time, to a greater extent than would have been possible if the executive order were in effect. This Is Who We Are challenges us to be values based, purpose driven and relationship focused. In strong recognition of the trust and respect we wish to maintain and grow between management and employees, the new Master Agreement maintains all employee rights as defined in Article 4.

More about the negotiation process to avoid a protracted and costly negotiation process, the Union and Management teams came together to undertake a creative and expeditious bargaining approach, which they jointly described as follows:  

  • The Union and Management negotiators recognized a window of opportunity to make significant updates to the Master Agreement before it expired in December, and to align with many of the provisions of Executive Orders issued in 2017 and 2018.
  • Together, the Union and Management teams made a focused and concerted effort to negotiate an extensive agreement in a very short timeframe which has historically taken more than a year.  This bargaining effort saved over $1 million dollars compared to past Master Agreement negotiations.
  • The agreement also preserves employee rights and is a testament to the desire of both parties to maintain a respectful relationship that reflects our interdependent workforce.

Next Steps Moving Forward
Changes in the new Master Agreement and transition guidance will be communicated in the next few weeks. Training for all NFFE bargaining unit employees and supervisors is being developed for delivery in early FY 20. 

Next week I will issue a reply due letter of direction on the implementation of the new Master Agreement. For the remainder of the fall we will provide briefings to leadership groups and supervisors, including a change management guide and communication resources. We will develop training modules for supervisors. Additionally the Union and Management will jointly develop and deliver training for employees. We will deliver the training modules for supervisors and NFFE bargaining unit employees in January to March of 2020.

We value the role of the Union in representing bargaining unit employees, and we value the relationships we have built with the Union over the years.  We share interests in employee well-being and resilience and maintaining a safe work environment in which all employees are treated with respect.  We remain committed to engaging the Union in ways that are practical, efficient, cost-effective, and beneficial to the Agency and our employees.

*Editor’s note: The new Master Agreement can also be viewed on the National Federation of Federal Employees Master Agreement website.