NATICK, Mass. -- The best time to discuss problems is before they ever arise.

That's the idea behind the Natick Soldier Systems Center Labor-Management Forum, which meets regularly with a goal to improve organizational efficiency and employee morale on the installation.

"Labor-management committees are pretty fundamental," said Jerry Gomez of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, who helps facilitate the Natick forum. "It's a place where you talk informally. This is the alternative to resolving a problem without formalizing it.

"Sometimes, things become blown up. And the way unions resolve things, typically, is to file a grievance. But in a labor-management setting, grievances aren't appropriate."

Such forums grew out of Presidential Executive Order 13522 of Dec. 9, 2009, which read, in part, "The purpose of this order is to establish a cooperative and productive form of labor-management relations throughout the executive branch." The NSSC forum began meeting about a year ago and includes members from the U.S. Army Garrison Natick, Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, the Integrated Logistics Support Center, and the National Association of Government Employees local.

"The union and management are supposed to meet regarding topics that they find to be truly important and discuss those topics," said Megan Saari, a human resources specialist at Natick, who facilitates the forum with Gomez. "It can be whatever topics they feel are appropriate, or if there's something management wants to bring forward pre-decisionally to discuss with the union, then that's something that they would discuss in the forum setting."

The variety of organizations at Natick presents unique labor-management challenges, said Michael Ahearn of ILSC.

"There are multiple organizations with multiple chains (of command) here with multiple agreements," Ahearn said. "They're separate agreements that are similar, and yet they're different in areas."

Forum members initially developed a comprehensive list of issues they wished to discuss. They have been working through them since then.

"I thought that, generally speaking, everybody had quite a few things that they were concerned about and wanted to discuss," said Carole Winterhalter, NAGE local president. "So, actually, it's a benefit, because there might be an issue in one organization that the other one doesn't have. Maybe there's something that we can learn.

"So we can talk about things before they become grievances. We can speak openly about the issues that we see."

Early on, the forum tackled the issue of the Total Army Performance Evaluation System, or TAPES.
Donna Bulger, representing NSRDEC, said it was a matter of "making sure we were being disciplined from a management perspective around timeliness on the performance standards and on … getting appraisals in on time. I think that's an important topic. It's important to employees."

"Our success from that is that training was made available for management and employees on how to better understand TAPES and the TAPES process," Winterhalter added.

According to Lynn Valcourt, NAGE local vice president, another session resulted in time off awards being approved as an alternative to cash incentives for garrison employees.

"When our budgetary constraints tie our hands, what are some things that we can do?" Valcourt said. "And together, we brainstormed that.

"We want to spend more of our time looking at ways we can cooperatively make things better here. That's what everybody wants, to come to work and enjoy what they're doing, and do it well."

Gomez said some of the forum meetings have gotten a bit "testy" at times.

"Nothing wrong with that," Gomez said. "You can disagree without being disagreeable."
Dr. Jack Obusek, NSSC interim senior manager, praised the forum.

"The forum allows management and labor to work together to identify and address issues early," Obusek said. "It provides another means to communicate and share ideas to improve the workplace and keep the NSSC a great place to work."

Forum representatives include: Management: Dr. John Obusek (NSRDEC), Lt. Col. Frank Sobchak (Garrison), Michael Ahearn (ILSC), Alternates: Donna Bulger (NSRDEC), Hugh Hardin (Garrison), Dale Brown (ILSC); Union: Carole Winterhalter, Union President (NSRDEC), and Lynn Valcourt, Union Vice President (Garrison).