FMCS boosts its reputation through success stories

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has helped resolve some major labor disputes, but you probably haven't heard of it. With aggressive PR, the group seeks to change that.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has helped resolve some major labor disputes, but you probably haven't heard of it. With aggressive PR, the group seeks to change that.

"We're from the government, and we want to help." You've heard that line before. But with the support of what it calls "public information" or "public affairs," one federal agency is proving that, in its case, the sentiment is true.

Government PR efforts have been somewhat controversial recently. But for years it has used communications techniques to get people to file their tax returns on time, help prevent forest fires, and buy savings bonds, for example. It also uses PSAs, not commercials.

And though the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) has no specific PR budget, says John Arnold, director of FMCS' three-person Office of Public Affairs, "we spend approximately $500,000 to $600,000 annually on public affairs programming. We also sponsor many conferences and workshops organized by its field offices, and write speeches and handout materials for these meetings."

With labor-management relations nationwide becoming increasingly polarized, FMCS' ongoing work evidently does help three major constituents: labor, management, and the public. The agency brings many companies and their workers' unions together to resolve their disputes without resorting to binding arbitration or dropping a bundle in court. In more than half the cases involving mediation, the survey showed, the parties indicated that a strike or lockout would have been likely without mediation.

Stressing its peacemaker role

Created in 1947, FMCS is an independent US government agency whose mission is to preserve and promote labor-management peace and cooperation. With 10 district offices and more than 70 field offices, the agency, which has its headquarters in Washington, DC, is a neutral and confidential intermediary in the labor contract negotiations and grievance process.

"One of our biggest challenges," says Arnold, "is the belief by some reporters and even unions that we are pro-government and can order labor and management back to the table. One way we're trying to dispel this misconception is by publicizing our success stories, which show the advantages of mediation in avoiding costly work stoppages that hurt both sides in a labor dispute."

In the widely reported Southern California grocery strike involving 60,000 employees of Kroger, Albertsons, and Vons last year, the agency mediated what the union involved said was the grocery chains' "deliberate effort to provoke a strike," says Arnold.

"We worked with the news media in presenting our agency's role as peacemakers, an ongoing effort that's part of our public affairs effort to prevent or mitigate economically damaging work stoppages," adds Arnold.

Edmond Jacoby, business reporter for the North County Times in Escondido, CA, says FMCS "got deservedly good press from the case. It has no enforcement power, but it's very efficient, very professional in what it does."

That emphasis on FMCS' role as neutral peacemakers is also stressed elsewhere in the agency's public affairs program, including on a frequently updated website, www.fmcs.gov, that Arnold says is visited by 40,000 people every month. "We also try to get that message across in speeches by senior managers, and in agency publications distributed nationwide at conferences, and by our mediators in their individual contacts," he adds.

In another major case, SBC Communications and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) agreed to a five-year pact as 100,000 members returned to their jobs after the negotiating teams met in a series of meetings at FMCS' headquarters. The agency had mediated an agreement in which the company agreed to slightly lower annual pay increases in exchange for slower increases in workers' out-of-pocket medical expenses. After 13 consecutive quarters of declining revenue, SBC had been under intense pressure to cut costs.

In an FMCS-provided statement, SBC CEO Edward Whitacre said the company "now has a labor agreement that provides us greater control over our cost structure and flexibility to meet our competitive challenges." And no wonder: In effect, FMCS helped saved California's dominant local phone company about $2 billion.

In at least one important respect, this government agency is like any business: It must persuade potential customers to use its services. It does that through its public affairs program by building a reputation for the agency as a source of neutral, knowledgeable, and economically valuable assistance for parties engaged in collective bargaining or that need alternative dispute-resolution services, such as mediation.

"To make labor and management representatives more aware of our agency services," says Arnold, "we focus on media relations and responding to media queries related to the more than 4,700 collective bargaining agreements that we handle yearly, and in which we had a greater than 80% success rate in getting the parties to agree."

As a result, the agency is mentioned practically every day in the news media somewhere in the country. (A Google search on "federal mediator" will usually turn up three or four news articles on various collective bargaining negotiations involving the agency around the US on any given day, Arnold says.)

Expansion of services

Since Congress passed the Alternative Dispute Resolution Act in 1990, the scope of FMCS has expanded in several ways. In addition to conflict resolution, it includes equal employment opportunity mediation; school- and workplace-violence prevention; interest-based or collaborative bargaining; facilitation of meetings for parties, the regulated and negotiated creation of rules; relationship-enhancing training; and international counsel, education, and training.

The agency also conducts courses in collective bargaining and leadership training for management and labor representatives. Under its Institute for Conflict Management, it provides both private and public sectors with real-world case studies to help them solve related problems. The institute, which conducts more than 20 training sessions every year in various cities, also teaches them how to become internal mediators, facilitate workplace disputes, and prepare for arbitration.

After FMCS helped resolve a disagreement involving 80,000 Verizon employees that had gotten a lot of media attention during the month-long negotiation, the agency drew praise from CWA's director of communications, Jeff Miller.

"The first thing the FMCS mediator did was to get both parties to agree to a news blackout - to stop bargaining in the media and thereby lower the anger on both sides when they read what the other was saying," says Miller. "Then he got both company and workers to sit down and talk to intermediaries, and eventually come to terms."

Verizon agrees. Eric Rabe, the company's VP of media relations, says, "We had gotten to the point before FMCS stepped in where neither side was willing to compromise. Coming in as a third party, the agency helped the union and the company to get to what both felt was a reasonable offer that resolved the healthcare issue, which was a major concern of the union. But before we could reach that point, both sides had to feel that FMCS was evenhanded."

They evidently did, and the Los Angeles Times reported, "Both sides declare victory."

That case was typical in enabling FMCS to build good word-of-mouth testimonials among labor relations professionals, which it augments with a series of meetings and conferences every year around the country, and with workshops and speakers on collective-bargaining trends and issues.

Meanwhile, the agency also sends printed and electronic backgrounders and updates to key audiences - Congress, the media, and labor and management professionals - as well as news and information about its services through broadcast e-mails and faxes.

Evidently, the plan is working. "The FMCS is regularly part of stories about negotiations that make local, regional, and national headlines," adds Arnold.

And both its reputation and record are good, according to a survey last year of labor and management professionals. In fact, most of those involved urged the agency to further increase public awareness of what it does and how it can help both management and labor.

Moreover, a number of mediators throughout the country say they, too, recognize the need to make their clients and potential clients aware of the full panoply of the agency's services. "We hope to do that," says Arnold, "with additional public affairs activities we've been working on."

PR contacts

Director of public affairs

John Arnold

Deputy director of public affairs

Ariella Bernstein

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