McMahon blasts Robins, union leaders over labor relations

wcrenshaw@macon.comApril 4, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- A small group of leaders at Robins Air Force Base and in its largest union are jeopardizing the base’s future, retired Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon said Thursday.

In a talk with community leaders at the Museum of Aviation, he unveiled statistics that showed Robins workers are filing far more grievances than those at the other two Air Force depots combined.

Robins workers filed 328 grievances in fiscal 2012, compared with 142 at Hill Air Force Base in Utah and 110 at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Also, there were 229 arbitrations at Robins in the same period, with only 64 at Hill and 32 at Tinker. The work force at all three bases is about the same size, he said.

The disparity is even greater in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, with 204 grievances and 173 arbitrations at Robins. Hill has 57 grievances and 33 arbitrations, and Tinker has 42 grievances and five arbitrations.

A grievance is the process by which workers file complaints ranging from workplace conditions to disputes with supervisors. If not resolved, it goes to arbitration in which an independent panel hears both sides and makes a ruling.

The numbers, McMahon said, indicate a serious problem with labor-management relations that will not bode well for the base if there is another Base Realignment and Closure Commission in 2015 or 2017, as is expected.

McMahon formerly commanded the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center and is now president of 21st Partnership, which works to protect the base in the event of a BRAC.

“This is a long-standing issue that has the potential of undermining our efforts to secure the future of Robins Air Force Base,” he said. “I believe this issue to be the No. 1 threat to the future of Robins Air Force Base.”

He declined to name the people he blames for the problem, saying it would not help.

“There is a small number of individuals from both sides of this issue, management and union, whose personal agendas are of greater importance to them than the health and well-being of our base and our community,” he said. “This situation did not arise overnight. It has been in place for many years. The four former commanders of the Air Logistics Center who live in our community have all dealt with the same issue during their tenure as commander, and none of those, including me, have solved the issue.”

Tom Scott, president of the base’s largest union, American Federation of Government Employees Local 987, said there is a misconception that all grievances are filed by the union, when the majority actually are filed individually by employees. The union, he said, typically doesn’t even know about it until the grievance has already been filed.

Scott said job appraisals and overtime issues are the most common cause of grievances. He said grievances related to job appraisals should begin dropping significantly because the base has shifted from a scoring-scale system to a simple pass/fail.

Scott said he could not speak to what BRAC might consider, but he noted that the criteria for base closure listed on the BRAC website, from the 2005 BRAC, does not mention labor-management relations.

Some grievances are legitimate and some are frivolous, McMahon said, but even most legitimate grievances could be settled at a lower level.

He did cite an example of how the grievance process can work in a positive way. Shortly before he took command, workers had brought safety issues to supervisors’ attention without result. They started filing grievances and that led to 39 citations from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. The union and management worked together to solve those violations and make vast safety improvements across the base.

McMahon worked in the Pentagon in preparation for the BRAC of 1995 and 2005. In the 1980s and early ’90s, he said, Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio was “notorious” for poor labor/management relations. Like Robins, the base was a major maintenance depot.

“I can tell you from firsthand experience, because I was in the room, that was a factor in the Air Force putting Kelly on the closure list for the 1995 BRAC,” he said.

McMahon, known for a tell-it-like-it-is approach when he was center commander at the base, explained why he is going public with the issue. He said he hopes to “ratchet up” attention to it so that improvements can be made before the next BRAC.

“I would rather not be standing up here today talking about this issue, but our choices are either talking about this issue with some potential backlash or continuing to ignore it at our own peril,” he said. “I don’t want any of us two years from now saying, ‘If we had only talked about this publicly, life could have been different.’”

That comment drew an “amen” from one audience member.

McMahon said he told base and union leaders what he planned to say. The meeting would not have appropriate for base leaders to attend, he said, therefore he did not invite the union to attend.

Col. Mitchel Butikofer, 78th Air Base Wing commander and installation commander, said in a written statement that labor and management relations need to be improved.

“Improving the lines of communication and cooperation with labor is an area where we can and must do better,” he said. “We need a strong partnership based on trust and confidence. We welcome any opportunities to improve our partnership with the union so that we can continue to provide the cost-effective readiness our nation needs.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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