The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) is an independent agency of the U.S. government that aims to prevent labor-management disputes from interrupting the flow of interstate commerce. The FMCS has numerous services for preventing or dealing with such disruptions but the most important is its mediation program aimed at resolving labor-management conflict.
The FMCS was established by the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947. Other legislation that affects FMCS activities is the Labor Management Cooperation Act of 1978 and the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act and Negotiated Rulemaking Act of 1996. The director of the FMCS is appointed by the president of the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate.
When labor-management negotiations reach an impasse over issues that could cause a "substantial interruption" of interstate commerce, both sides may resort to voluntary and nonbinding mediation in an effort to resolve the dispute. Both parties must agree to mediation although it need be requested by only one side. Throughout the mediation process, the mediator seeks to bring both parties of the dispute to a voluntary agreement, although neither side is obliged to comply with the mediator's final recommendations. Dispute mediation has been the primary activity of the FMCS since its inception. In 1997 FMCS mediators were assigned to 20,844 dispute cases. Of these cases, 5,643 saw active involvement of mediators in the negotiation process and in 4,875 of these cases (86.3 percent) contract agreements were reached. Most noteworthy in 1997 was FMCS involvement in bringing a conclusion to the United Parcel Service/Teamsters contract negotiations and the seven-year dispute between Caterpillar Inc. and the United Auto Workers.
FMCS mediators staff district offices located throughout the country, concentrated mostly in industrialized areas. As required by the Labor Management Relations Act, as amended, if the parties to the labor contract fail to reach an agreement 30 days prior to the termination or reopening of the contract, they must notify the appropriate district FMCS office. FMCS district directors review all notices sent to their respective offices. If the FMCS director believes the dispute falls under FMCS guidelines, a mediator is assigned to the case. The FMCS will not likely become involved if the dispute has minimal impact on interstate commerce or if state or other conciliation services are available.
Through its Office of Arbitration Services, the FMCS provides a panel or a list of arbitrators to both sides of a labor dispute. The arbitrators are chosen from the FMCS roster. The two sides then follow a stipulated procedure for striking names from the list until only one name remains. This remaining person will arbitrate the dispute. Unlike FMCS mediators, the arbitrators are not federal employees, but private citizens qualified to settle labor disputes. Decisions made through arbitration are almost always binding. Occasionally, however, disputing parties agree to nonbinding or "advisory" arbitration. Grievance arbitration usually involves disputes over contract language in preexisting contracts. Interest arbitration, on the other hand, takes place while a contract is being negotiated. Most labor contracts today contain grievance and arbitration provisions. The 1997 FMCS roster contains the names of approximately 1,450 arbitrators and during the year the service issued 31,295 panels of arbitrators.
The FMCS also has a dispute resolution service that it provides to government agencies involved in disputes outside of collective bargaining. Known as alternative dispute resolution (ADR), the program uses mediators for facilitation and mediation services and consultation, conflict-resolution systems design, and education programs in which people are trained in conflict-resolution techniques. These activities are done under provisions of the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act of 1996. It is hoped that this program will reduce the costs of future litigation and bolster a better decision-making process.
The FMCS is involved in other activities both internationally and at home. The FMCS has an International Affairs Office that provides relevant technical assistance in such areas as negotiation skills, collective bargaining, mediation skills, dispute resolution, labor-management cooperation, and arbitration procedures. Funding for international activities comes from contracts with other government agencies such as the State Department and the Agency for International Development. The FMCS also offers grants to promote cooperative labor-management committees at various tiers of activity, ranging from the plant level up to whole communities or geographic areas. Such grants are available for both the public and private sector. In 1996 the FMCS awarded 19 different grants totaling $1.5 million to labor-management committees.
The FMCS offers the services of its mediators without charge. They are salaried employees of the federal government although their positions are exempt from civil service eligibility requirements. Likewise there is no charge when the FMCS provides a panel of arbitrators. The arbitrator's fees, however, are paid by the disputing parties.
[ Michael Knes ]
Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. "FMCS: Welcome to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service." Washington: Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, 1998. Available from www.fmcs.gov .
"Policies, Functions, and Procedures." Washington: Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Office of Arbitration Services, 1979.
"FMCS at the 50 Year Mark: An Interview with John Calhoun Wells." Labor Law Journal 9 (September 1997): 580-84.