Coming to grips with a gripping problem at the base

April 7, 2013 

The former commander of the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center could not have been more blunt when he addressed a group of community leaders on Thursday. “There is a small number of individuals from both sides of this issue, management and union,” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon, “whose personal agendas are of greater importance to them than the health and well-being of our base and our community.”

The number of employee grievances at Robins, when compared to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma and Hill Air Force Base in Utah, is staggering. In fiscal 2012, Robins had 76 more grievances than Tinker and Hill combined.

In 2013, Robins has had more than twice the grievances as Tinker and Hill combined and almost five times the number of arbitration cases ­-- and the fiscal year has almost six months remaining.

While some blithely state that labor relations is not one of the considerations in base realignment and closure, McMahon, now head of the 21st Century Partnership, has seen the process up close and personal while serving at the Pentagon during the 1995 BRAC and the 2005 BRAC. “I can tell you from firsthand experience,” McMahon said, “because I was in the room, that was a factor (labor relations) in the Air Force putting Kelly (Air Force Base) on the closure list in the 1995 BRAC.”

Poor relations between the union and base management is not a new issue. There are four former commanders living in the Warner Robins area and all failed to improve the relationship. It’s time for a new attitude. The fact that one of the union chiefs says many of the grievances filed are by individuals and not by the union is an indication of a problem. Workers may feel the union, for whatever reason, does not adequately represent them, or they believe management ignores grievances filed by the union and they work around it. In either case, the situation must change.

There are four aspects of the upcoming BRAC in 2015 or 2017 everyone in Middle Georgia, particularly the workers and management at Robins, must understand.

1. The three complexes, Robins, Hill and Tinker, are all well run.

2. The three bases will be judged against all the other bases in the Air Force on a metric that will split hairs and identify minute differences.

3. The Pentagon will have a lot less money.

4. The Air Force is competing with the other services for limited resources.

This issue and others faced by Robins is not just a base issue. It’s a community issue all of Middle Georgia can help solve. It’s a matter of attitude. Somehow management and labor have to create a sense of mission.

The lack of a shared mission was displayed 50 years ago when the International Typographical Union, Local No. 6, said, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” and shut down The New York Times and six other New York newspapers for 114 days -- an act that led to the demise of four of those papers, costing many strikers their jobs. Base management can’t take the stance of ignoring legitimate labor issues as the newspaper barons did half a century ago. In short, they have to get along to keep the base open and thriving. Everyone wins.

Can we do it? We have to do it. If the base were to close and more than $4 billion annually disappears from the community, would there be anyone left, union or management, to turn off the lights?

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