Asha Ault of DC OLRCB highlights importance of mutual respect between management and unions in DC

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.

DC LERA makes successful transition from Virtual to Live events in 2022

The Washington, DC chapter of the Labor and Employment Relations Association (DC LERA) benefits from the participation of a very rich community of practitioners, policymakers, academics, and labor attaches from a number of embassies (including France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, and Taiwan) in Washington DC.

In 2022, DC LERA continued to host and co-host several events featuring members of this community – all while making the not-so-easy transition from virtual to live and hybrid events. We organized sessions on the future of work, global labor rights, the gig economy in Europe, labor issues at the USPS, the Federal Labor Relations Authority, the legacy of slavery and construction and deconstruction of racism in the US, Europe and South Africa, the history of 925 and equal pay for women in the US, the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, the concept of “dirty work,” and an update on the NLRB.

Our speakers were leading thinkers and practitioners on all of these topics, including Karen Nussbaum of Working America, Lane Windham of the Kalmanovitz Initiative at Georgetown University, Ernie DuBester of the FLRA, Thea Lee of US DOL, Sunnie Rucker-Chang of Ohio State University, Mark Clark of the Kogod School of Business at American University, Randolph McLaughlin of Pace University in New York, Anton Hajjar of the Board of Governors of the U.S. Postal Service, Rebecca Dixon of the National Employment Law Project, Mark Pearce of the Georgetown Law School Worker Rights Institute, Richard Bock of the NLRB, and Melissa Fisher of the NYU Institute of Public Knowlege.

In addition, we hosted several international experts on workplace issues, including Annamaria Westregård of Lund University, Kgomotso Mufamadi of the University of Johannesburg, Mijke Houwerzijl of Tilburg University Law School, and Roman Kormann of the German Trade Union Federation.

As we transitioned from purely virtual to live, hybrid and some virtual events, we met at the ILO, the Kogod School of Business at American University, and Georgetown Law Center in order to reach out to our publics – especially students. Our partners included the Worker Rights Institute at Georgetown Law School, the American Constitution Society DC Lawyers Chapter, the Workplace Prof Blog, and the African Labour Law Society.

It is the hope of 2022 DC LERA President, Dr. David Jacobs, that we inspired some students to think about the field of labor and workplace relations for their careers – and that our events and activities gave participants and attendees a bit of hope as the pandemic continued to shape our lives.

In 2023, we plan on continuing the DC LERA tradition of bringing professionals and students of all stripes to the table to discuss topical and timely workplace matters.