Five Labor Days have now gone by since the contract between the Air Force and unionized workers from the American Federation of Government Employees at Offutt Air Force Base expired.
But after five years of talks, Air Force managers and leaders of AFGE Local 1486 have resolved less than half the issues on their agenda, said union President Julie Sheehan. The union represents about 1,000 Offutt employees, including nurses, day care workers, dispatchers, welders and security personnel.
“Here we are, no further along than we were before,” she said. “We're all very frustrated.”
Lewis Ensor represents 61 members of the International Association of Firefighters Local F-191 who work in Offutt's on-post fire department. They last negotiated a new contract in 1986. He said he has waited three years to restart contract negotiations, hoping AFGE's talks would wrap up.
He's decided not to wait any longer.
“I don't see an end in sight for (them),” Ensor said.
Salary and most benefits are set by Congress and aren't part of negotiations. Instead, they focus on a wide range of work rules, from training for equipment custodians to whether employees would receive hazard pay in the event of a pandemic.
Officials at the 55th Wing, the Air Force host command that runs Offutt, declined an interview, but the wing public affairs office released a statement from Col. Greg Guillot, the wing commander.
“We have been in contract negotiations with representatives from (AFGE) Local 1486 since the Fall of 2008, and the bargaining teams have made some recent progress,” he wrote. “We are eager to reach a successor agreement that covers terms and conditions of employment for civilian bargaining unit employees.”
Union officials hope that Guillot really is eager to wrap up talks. They say he is the fourth wing commander they've worked with since the negotiations began. In the absence of an agreement, the existing contract is automatically extended.
Sheehan keeps a thick loose-leaf notebook filled with information about the 60 work issues AFGE is negotiating with the Air Force. Colored tabs mark each issue by its current status: yellow if an agreement has been finalized, blue for partial agreement, pink if it's been tabled and orange for items that have never been addressed.
Only 21 tabs are yellow.
“We're tired,” Sheehan said. “How many more years is this going to go on?”
One of their biggest sticking points, they say, is the establishment of an Employee Assistance Program, or EAP. The program is designed to give workers a confidential place to turn for help with drug, alcohol or mental health matters. It has been around since the 1940s and became a nearly universal benefit in corporate America and throughout government.
President Ronald Reagan issued an executive order in 1986 establishing a drug-free federal workplace and requiring all executive branch agencies to offer EAP. Other Air Force bases, including Hickam Field in Hawaii, Edwards Air Force Base in California and Hill Air Force Base in Utah, all offer the program.
Offutt does not. But other programs do exist to help workers, according to a written statement that Terry Patterson, the civilian personnel manager, released through the public affairs office. These include the Airman & Family Readiness Center, Family Advocacy Office, Mental Health Clinic and Alcohol & Drug Abuse Prevention & Treatment program, he said.
“Taking care of the civilian workforce will always be a top priority,” Patterson said. “Employees with work or life-related issues are encouraged to seek assistance from their leadership or through one of the assistance programs.”
The union also is seeking to have overtime allocated by seniority instead of at the discretion of supervisors, and pay for civilian aircraft maintenance teams who are on-call nights and weekends.
They also want paid time to work on union business.
“Nobody's shooting the moon. Nobody's asking for unreasonable things,” Ensor said.
For their part, the unions are fighting back with paperwork. The Offutt AFGE local has filed more than 50 unfair labor practice complaints since 2005, Sheehan said. They won a complaint ordering the Air Force to step up the pace of negotiations, and they stopped the management at Offutt's Ehrling Bergquist Clinic from converting a lunchroom for pediatrics employees into a full-time conference room.
“I don't know how much better off we are,” Sheehan said, “but at least we know how to fight.”
The slowed Offutt negotiations illustrate how contentious labor talks have grown in recent years even as the stakes have gotten smaller, said Paul Mishler, a labor studies professor at Indiana University-South Bend. Unions are in decline and on the defensive.
In the 1960s and 1970s, he said, personnel managers knew and accepted that working with unions was part of their job.
“It used to be that's what managers did,” Mishler said. “Now they are feeling outraged that they have to listen to the unions about anything.”
Public-sector union negotiations were relatively cordial because managers didn't stand to lose anything if they bent on workplace issues. In recent years, though, government leaders have taken a more aggressive position.
“There's been this real effort to beat back the unions in the public sector,” Mishler said. “Big and small issues are going to be fought over.”
Public employees are getting battered in the arena of public opinion but fight over smaller issues to save a bit of respect.
“Do you want disgruntled firefighters? Who wants to get sick and have disgruntled nurses?” Mishler said. “People need to understand that respect for workers is what underpins labor peace.”
It remains to be seen whether the two sides will give peace a chance.
Guillot's statement, though, offers some soothing words for employees.
“We appreciate what they do each and every day,” he said, “and look forward to continuing our work together here at Team Offutt.”