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Opinion: Restoring worker freedom in the federal workforce

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Unions are an indispensable part of the private sector, but unfortunately many federal employees, while not forced to join unions, work under conditions in which unions have a disproportionate voice.

Federal employee unions cannot strike or negotiate over wages or benefits, which are set by Congress, but increasing numbers of federal employees are governed by collective bargaining agreements that grant wide latitude to unions.

CBAs now trump everything except federal law. In the military, for example, service regulations, many command decisions, and even the Code of Federal Regulations bow before union authority. Strong unions in the federal workforce are unnecessary, as U.S. government employees already enjoy civil service protections that make their jobs more secure than that of the last veterinarian on Noah's Ark. More than unneeded, however, federal unions are at odds with worker freedoms, inhibit workplace improvements and cost taxpayers millions of dollars every year.

One of the pillars of union power is the precedent of "past practices." According to this, if a supervisor allows conduct -- even if it wasteful -- it cannot be changed without negotiated agreement with union leadership. For example, if a supervisor allowed workers to leave work 30 minutes early on Fridays, while paying them for the entire shift, a new supervisor could not enforce normal hours -- in other words, a day's pay for a full day's work -- without "negotiating" with the union.

In order even to begin the negotiations, the supervisor would have to grant union representatives release time, at taxpayers' expense and during working hours, so they could prepare. By one estimate, this release time cost taxpayers $120 million in 2009 -- subsidies paid by the U.S. Treasury so union representatives could engage in political activity, instead of doing the jobs for which the American people hired them.

Under many CBAs, the union has a right to be present at all discussions between supervisors and employees, even if the employees themselves do not want the union to be there. For example, if a manager wants to talk to a worker about implementing new safety rules, or something as mundane as moving a copy machine, union reps can demand to participate.

Every change in work conditions, however minor, is subject to these "negotiations." It is no wonder that many supervisors despair of improving efficiencies, saving taxpayers from unneeded expenses, or of disciplining employees who are members of unions. On the latter issue, it can be nearly impossible to effectively manage an active union member; under federal law, union members have the so-called "Weingarten Rights" to refuse to answer any questions about their work unless a union rep is allowed to be present, if the worker believes he might be subject to disciplinary action. Under this provision, a supervisor cannot ask a worker why he was late, whether he completed an assigned task, or if he followed a workplace rule, without being rebuffed until a union rep arrives, which could be a delay of days, or even weeks.

It would be one thing if CBAs had the support of all workers. However, under current policy, workers covered by CBAs do not have a right to opt out of having unions represent them. In many cases, unions are empowered to negotiate CBAs without the knowledge and consent of workers.

In a recent incident, there was a "vote" to endorse union representation of civilian workers under one Department of Defense agency. Out of about 1,000 workers, only nine participated in the election -- the rest either had not heard of the vote or did not want union representation. Nonetheless, all 1,000 are now represented by a union.

These practices are at odds with liberty and should be changed. Unions should have to be confirmed by a vote of a majority of eligible workers every two to three years. If a union cannot muster support from 50.1 percent of employees in a free vote, they should not be allowed to enter into CBAs with the U.S. government.

There needs to be a true right to work at the federal level, with individual workers able to opt out completely from union intervention in their workplace activities. Supervisors should be restored their First Amendment rights to criticize unfair union practices.

Finally, the union work of union representatives should be paid for by union dues, either by reimbursing the U.S. Treasury when union officials are not at their jobs, or by paying salaries directly to those union reps, who could then take unpaid leave for time they serve the union.

With these changes in place, unions would have to prove themselves of real value to federal employees, not just surviving at great cost not only to the American people, but to the freedoms of the workers they ostensibly represent.

Wayne H. Bowen is a professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University.

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Mr. Bowen good editorial well prepared. All workers including government workers should have the right to opt out from Union representation if they so desire. Unions should not be forced on workers if they don't want it.

-- Posted by swampeastmissouri on Thu, Mar 22, 2012, at 5:56 AM

Professor Bowen is very mistaken by Unions in general and specificely Unions in the federal sector. As a Chief Union Steward with eighteen years of first hand experiance, I find the miss-information and the down right twisting of facts to be very insulting. The Union have a say in the working conditoons of employees in the federal sector just like any other Union, but in this instance legislated Federal Law mandatess that this happens for the employee's protection. True the civil service employee enjoys protections as stated by law and regulation, but it is the Union's job to ensure management abides by those laws and regulations. Past practices are considered only when senior management knows of the pratice over a long period of time and this is also gaurnteed by legislated law and regulation. The release from the work site to conduct Union business was mandated by Pres. John Kennedy during his tenure. The only thing the Union can negotiate are the conditions under which the employee works. Weingarten rights were put in place just as Miranda rights were gaurnteeed by the Supreem Court in 1966. As to communicating with employees about negotiations, management in all cases makes it vertually immpossible to get the word out to employees, so the Union should not be held rsponsible for management's actions. the Professor would be best served by attending Labor History 101 and Federal Labor Law 101 before he speaks on the subject.

-- Posted by MSO439 on Thu, Mar 22, 2012, at 10:58 AM

I am the labor relations manager for a Federal facility with about 1,000 employees, and I work with two unions at this location. One is very obstructionist; they want to fight over everything, they paralyze managers with repeated grievances and demands to bargain (at times, as many as one a day), and their officers are all people who joined the union after being disciplined or demoted. That union is a drain on the taxpayer-funded mission of this agency.

The other union is very pragmatic. Few, if any, of its officers and stewards have ever faced disciplinary action, they usually try to work things out informally instead of filing grievances and ULPs, and they have been an asset when dealing with problem employees (even to the extent of convincing employees who would eventually face termination to resign and leave quietly).

My point is that not all the Federal unions can be tarred with the same brush. Certainly there are those who abuse the system, and as a taxpayer it makes me ill to hear about facilities where union officials are on 100% official time (meaning they are holding, and being paid for, a full-time Federal job but spend 100% of their duty time taking care of union business). But there are other unions that are capable of being good partners to management. Treated with respect (not just politeness, but a genuine respect for the opinions and experiences of the union officers), they can be a valuable tool for running an operation smoothly.

I agree with the sentiments that the unions face too little competition, which leads to complacency and poor support of their membership. A more retail model of unionization, where the union has to actively work to stay an asset to its membership, would be beneficial for the employees and unions both.

If anything needs to be changed to improve the Federal workforce, it is the multiple channels by which third parties second-guess managers and undermine agency authority in disciplinary matters. In addition to Weingarten rights, employees are protected by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), EEOC, their agency's internal EEO structure, whistleblower protections, etc., all of which serve mostly to give bad employees shields from the consequences of their misconduct. Of several dozen EEO complaints I've seen during my time here, not one has been based on anything remotely resembling true discrimination.

The MSPB itself is a detriment to good order and discipline in the Federal service. Usually comprised of attorneys who have never actually had to manage a work unit or business, the MSPB makes outlandish judgments and reverses disciplinary actions that were already paltry compared to private sector corrective measures. We recently had to give two years of back pay to an employee who blatantly lied on a promotion application and was subsequently fired. Because OPM cited the wrong legal authority when terminating him, MSPB (after two years' of wrangling) returned him to us, and we had to pay him. We subsequently fired him again, this time under the correct legal paragraph, but it still cost the taxpayers nearly $100,000 in back pay for those two years.

Many of the problems attributed to the unions are owing instead to the morass of civil service protections that inhibit or entirely prevent managers from effectively managing their employees. While I agree with some of the points in Professor Bowen's article, I believe that the issues are far more complex than he makes them out to be, and that any reform of Federal labor laws needs to be accompanied by a dismantling and rebirth of civil service protections.

-- Posted by NoloContendere on Thu, Mar 22, 2012, at 11:19 AM

There are 6 out of perhaps 70 employees at our site alone who have attempted to remove themselves from paying dues to the local NFFE chapter here in the North West. Mostly because we cannot afford it any longer. For up to two years, the union has refused to stop taking our dues. I have threatened unfair labor practices and publication of the incident to no avail. Even our congressman (D-OR Merkley) refused to help us. NFFE conveniently changes it's rules and addendums annually. They really suck.

-- Posted by CindyOregon on Thu, Mar 22, 2012, at 1:15 PM

Wow. First,full disclosure: I'm a union official. Now, thanks for your example of past practice regarding the SUPERVISOR that allowed his employees to cheat the taxpayers by leaving 1/2 hr early. If a practice is against regulation, it can be stopped at any time....how the change is implemented MAY be subject to bargaining, but not the change itself. Get your facts straight. Next, regardless of how much money you claim the unions cost taxpayers, I can absolutely guarantee you that management wastes at least triple that. You may want to read some case law. The union CANNOT negotiate over "every little thing"....case law does not support that assertion. Lastly, if you think that management cannot introduce efficiencies because the union stops them from doing so, you are sadly mistaken. I can give you so many examples of the opposite it will make your head spin. In conclusion, your claims are based on opinion and misinformation, not facts, and those of us who work for the taxpayer, guarding their money from waste, really resent you bashing our efforts.

-- Posted by longtimefed on Fri, Mar 23, 2012, at 7:25 AM

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Wayne Bowen
The Pen and the Sword
Wayne Bowen received his Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University, and is also an Army veteran.