Power, Money, National Security, and Federal Employees

How can we make government more effective and efficient? Probably not through continuous litigation of the same issue. Congress and the administration need to rethink the labor relations structure in agencies responsible for national security.

Organizations such as the FBI, CIA, NSA and the Transportation Security Agency are vital to our national security. Congress has been consistent in recognizing that national security is not consistent with federal labor laws requiring an agency to negotiate with unions representing federal employees.

But, since unions were already representing employees in the agencies that were combined into Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the prohibition against unions doesn’t apply. Congress and the Administration may want to rethink the approach if we are serious about protecting the country.

An article earlier this week in the Washington Post referred to the “Sorry State of Problem-Solving” at CBP.

The agency and the union have, as the Post article points out, been continuously sparring before arbitrators and the FLRA on overtime and shift assignments for the past several years. In effect, the agency apparently concluded that “co-management” as envisioned by the partnership approach advocated during the Clinton administration was not working well. The agency began to assert its power to make decisions on shift and overtime assignments within the agency.

What the article does not mention is that NTEU has filed hundreds of grievances on the issue. Some of these have gone to arbitration, some to the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) and some will be reviewed by one court or another. The union has ultimately lost in these cases. A new decision by an arbitrator is contrary to numerous decisions on the issue and apparently found in favor of the union.

This recent case involves a decision by a well-known arbitrator. This same arbitrator previously issued a decision in another case on the same type of issue. That decision was overturned by the FLRA.

No doubt, the agency will also appeal this new decision and, based on numerous decisions on this issue, the agency is likely to again prevail.

Most of us would agree that there should be a way to resolve disputes effectively in government. Congress previously reached the same conclusion and set up the arbitration process as an effective way to do this. But there is nothing in the law to stop a union from filing hundreds of grievances on the same issue and seeking vindication in the press when it finally gets one to go its way.

The agency argues that requiring bargaining each time a shift change is made will create a situation that harms our national security. Anyone involved with labor negotiations in the federal sector knows that bargaining on relatively simple issues can take weeks, months or years.

And, perhaps more importantly, there is an upcoming union election. Some employees in the agency will choose between selecting NTEU or AFGE as their exclusive representative. For some, the financial and organizational self-interest of winning the upcoming election probably takes precedence over other issues or concerns.

In effect, while the union wants to secure its “rights” through continuous litigations, most Americans would prefer a more secure border. Most of us don’t care who wins the election. Most Americans certainly don’t know (and won’t know from reading the Post article) that the union has filed hundreds of grievances on the same issue and has lost consistently.

One conclusion can be reached from this “sorry state of affairs.” The existing labor relations statute has not been effective in resolving disputes or preventing abuse of the system. The decision of Congress to radically change the labor relations program in Homeland Security and the Department of Defense certainly doesn’t sit well as unions will lose power and money under a revamped system. No doubt, some employees will also make less money with the agency making the decisions on overtime assignments.

But changing the system is probably necessary to make all of us safer and more secure.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47