By Aekrama Ahmed, American University – Class of ’25

On October 26, 2023, the Washington, DC chapter of the Labor and Employment Relations (DC LERA) and the Women’s National Democratic Club (WNDC) co-sponsored a sit-down conversation with Asha Ault, Chief of Staff of the District of Columbia Office of Labor Relations and Collective Bargaining (OLRCB), to discuss her perspective and experiences on workplace laws and labor relations in the District.

Moderated by Dr. David Jacobs, a professor at the American University Kogod School of Business, the conversation started off with a discussion of the fundamental elements of DC workplace laws and policies. Ms. Ault shared a simple truth: getting along in the workplace helps everyone achieve more. She expressed the opinion that when management and unions see each other as partners, they often find they are aiming for the same goals. “The more we fight, the less we get done,” she observed, pointing out that cooperation is key. For Ms. Ault, it’s about more than just working together – it’s about making sure everyone is treated fairly and with respect at work. She made it clear that success in the workplace comes from everyone pulling in the same direction.

Ms. Ault went on to describe the primary function of the OLRCB. She explained that the goal of the OLRCB is to represent the mayor and city agencies when they engage in negotiations with unions and address disputes about workplace issues. But what is really important, she pointed out, is that they focus on creating and keeping a good relationship with labor unions. For Ms. Ault, this is about making sure that there is a strong, cooperative, and lasting connection with the unions that represent the District’s public workforce. In D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser and City Administrator Kevin Donahue are committed to partnering with the City’s labor leaders and engage with them to identify, address and resolve workforce concerns before they become major issues.

When asked by Dr. Jacobs how the District of Columbia’s labor laws and policies differ from other jurisdictions, Ms. Ault outlined the distinct legislative framework that governs labor relations in the District. She pointed out that DC relies heavily on the Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act, a set of laws specific to the city, which is bolstered by actions of the Council of the District of Columbia and Mayoral orders. These form the backbone of labor laws in Washington, DC. These labor laws and regulations are guided by the District Personnel Manual and collective bargaining agreements that dictate workplace conditions and compensation.

Dr. Jacobs brought up the topic of Paid Family Leave, and Ms. Ault explained that in the District of Columbia, getting this benefit for workers was fairly straight-forward thanks to the DC Council. Ms. Ault emphasized the forward-thinking stance of law makers in DC, noting that such progressive policies are not as easily enacted or even entertained in other jurisdictions. DC Law establishes certain requirements in order to qualify for Paid Family Leave, but for the most part if you work in DC for a certain amount of time you will qualify for the benefit.

Dr. Jacobs and Ms. Ault also discussed bargaining over women’s issues. Ms. Ault explained that in DC, fighting for women’s rights in collective bargaining is not as tough as it might be in other jurisdictions because of the city’s progressive stance on working women’s rights. Ms. Ault also reflected on her personal experiences, noting a welcoming culture in the OLRCB.

When asked about sexual harassment law and collective bargaining in DC, Ms. Ault explained that under the DC Human Rights Act, all claims of sexual harassment and discrimination go through specific channels (for example, the DC Office of Human Rights) and are not subjects for negotiation in the collective bargaining process. Ms. Ault emphasized the strong influence of women within DC public unions. She also noted the high level of unionization in DC government, where about 70% of the 37,000 strong public workforce is unionized.

Ms. Ault wrapped up her remarks with a pivotal piece of advice that could serve as a model for other jurisdictions. The best practice in DC government labor relations is to see labor as a partner. Building a strong relationship and fostering open communication with labor unions are cornerstones of this approach. Ms. Ault stressed the importance of this partnership and urged other jurisdictions to consider adopting a similar collaborative mindset.