“It’s Not Personal, It’s Just Business”

Press releases are written to provide a favorable image of an organization or to create an unfavorable image of another person or organization. Federal employee unions issue lots of press releases. Sometimes, the unions attack each other. Here is an example and an analysis of what the press releases really mean.

Federal employee unions are not hesitant to issue press releases condemning the administration or a policy that may have a negative impact on some federal employees.

But the vitriol is not always confined to attacking Republicans. Sometimes, it can be just as bad when they turn on each other. In fact, the intensity of a union cat fight recalls the famous line from the Godfather: “It’s not personal, its just business.”

What can fuel the mocking and jeering insults that reflect the intensity of emotion sometimes emanating from union press offices when unions attack one another?

If often relates to money or organizing campaigns–which in turn lead to money. Here are a couple of samples from a press release from the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

AFGE says that a recent action by NTEU is “amusing and appalling.”

AFGE’s National President says that “NTEU should be ashamed.” And it gets worse. Recent actions by NTEU are “demeaning and offensive.”

And what has raised the ire of the “largest federal employee union representing 600,000 federal and D.C. government workers nationwide and overseas”?

In this instance, the National Treasury Employees Union is “chartering its first chapter for employees of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at one of the nation’s most important airports.” NTEU, despite the clear link to the Treasury Department, describes itself as representing “some 150,000 workers in 30 government agencies, making it the largest independent non-postal federal employees union.”

NTEU says in its press release that it is taking action now because “TSA employees need serious, effective and determined representation.” (Which, while AFGE is never mentioned, may be a reference to NTEU’s rival union which, by implication is not providing “serious effective and determined representation.”)

But, that is okay, because according to the AFGE press release, the officials in the union’s national office are apparently getting a good laugh over all this. “AFGE is amused by NTEU’s propensity to follow in our footsteps,” according to AFGE’s National President.

To drive, home the point, AFGE’s president mocks his rival’s efforts with the statement: “Now that Congress is moving forward on AFGE’s bill to allow TSOs [transportation security officers] collective bargaining rights, NTEU has decided to take an interest in TSOs?”

Not surprisingly, NTEU disagrees with this assessment and told a Federal Times reporter that the timing of the chapter’s formation is not related to Congressional approval of a bill unionizing TSA. Life, apparently, is full of happy coincidence. In this case, the Congressional bill and the formation of an NTEU chapter “were on totally separate tracks that ended up intersecting.”

So what does all this mean?

The press releases are probably more revealing for what they do not say. Here is a quick interpretation of what the press releases mean in reality.

First, the two unions believe there is a good chance that airport screeners will get to be represented by a union. There are a lot of screeners. There are some problems within the agency and the unions will work feverishly to fan the flames and get employees upset and concerned about the problems with the goal of getting them to join the union and start paying dues. Each union will claim to be the savior of besieged employees and urge them to sign up for representation.

Second, NTEU is playing catch-up. AFGE has been parroting its role as a representative of employees in TSA for several years. While the role of AFGE is necessarily limited because of the labor relations program that currently exists in the agency, the union has been visible and has had some success. Because of this, NTEU is probably behind in organizing employees in the agency. It is establishing a beach head in New York and will use this as a starting point for an assault on AFGE during any organizing campaign that may take place in the future–if or when legislation is passed giving airport screeners the ability to have a union with comparable power to most other federal agencies.

Third, AFGE is not taking the NTEU threat lightly. NTEU is known as being aggressive in organizing federal employees. Moreover, NTEU recently won a major election in the Customs and Border Protection Bureau to represent about 20,000 employees in the Department of Homeland Security. That election represents a lot of clout and a lot of money. No doubt, the outcome of that election is fresh on the minds of the public relations writers in both unions.

Fourth, a lot of money is at stake. While no one knows how much will be paid in dues to the winning union, if there is ultimately an election, one legislator says “Unionizing the 43,000 security screeners at TSA could give labor unions a $17 million annual windfall in the form of new union dues.” This Senator obviously does not relish the prospect of either union winning as he argues that the legislative effort “is a hearty payback to the unions for helping Democrats win the past election. These dues can then be kicked back to lawmakers in the form of political contributions without the consent of rank-and-file union members.”

Finally, while some agency representatives will find the conflict interesting and amusing, that is probably not the case for those working in TSA.

Federal agencies usually get caught in the crossfire. Eventually, if legislation is approved changing the labor relations structure at TSA, one union will win and one will lose. Both unions will at various times accuse the agency of favoring the other union and the agency will spend considerable time and money defending itself in litigation and hearings and investigations. Once the election is finally over, the appeals are filed and decisions have been issued and the legal apparatus has been spent, the agency can then start spending lots more money preparing to bargain a contract and going through a similar process of accusations and counter-accusations during the bargaining phase–in addition to paying the full salaries of some union representatives while they are on “official time” and pursuing their union duties.

In short, the press releases are an introduction to a process that will likely go on for a few years. In the meantime, the federal government will probably spend a few million dollars for salaries, investigations, elections, and litigation until it is played out. The pot of gold at the heart of the dispute will be that the winner is likely to be taking in dues payments from the employees they represent for many years.

Whether most taxpayers like to see their tax dollars spent on this process, and whether the process will make us more or less secure from terrorist actions in the future, are probably secondary considerations for many participants. But, as the Michael Corleone succinctly stated in the Godfather: “It’s not personal, it’s just business.”

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