Federal Unions and Their Paid Representatives: What Do You Know about Them and What Do You Think about Their Role?

This article describes some of the characteristics of a Federal union its paid representatives. The author invites readers to comment on questions posed by the article concerning the role and access to services given to federal employee unions by federal agencies.

What do you know about Federal unions and the people that represent them? This article looks at what a Federal union is and who its paid representatives are.  Make sure to read and comment on the questions at the end of this article.

What is a Federal Union?

A Federal employee union is NOT a governmental entity.  The simple answer is that unions under the IRS tax code are considered non-profit organizations under Section 501(c)(5).  The IRS regulations state that organizations are eligible for this category if their purposes are for the betterment of conditions of those engaged in labor, agriculture, or horticulture, the improvement of the grade of their products, and the development of a higher degree of efficiency in their occupations.

Additionally, unions, including Federal unions are regulated by the Department of Labor’s Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS).  Unions are required to file annual financial statements and give OLMS a copy of their constitutions and bylaws. These may be obtained through the OLMS website.

If a Federal employee union’s own employees want a union, they are subject to the private sector labor laws like any other private sector entity.  In a somewhat embarrassing turn of events, AFGE has been picketed by its own employees in labor disputes in the past.

National Unions and Local Unions

You may hear the term AFL-CIO affiliated or independent.  A union is affiliated if it is part of the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations and independent if not.  The Teamsters are the largest private sector union and the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) is the largest Federal sector independent union.  A national union is an umbrella organization composed of locals.  The local is a branch of the national.  Historically, at least in the Federal sector, local unions were formed to seek recognition at a specific installation or within a region of an Agency.

National Officers and employees are paid by the union.  Some national unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) have intervening organizations between the national office and the local.  In a side note, AFGE has Districts numbered 2-14 but no District 1 or 13.  Must be superstitious, huh?

NTEU has historically been a top down or headquarters dominated union while AFGE has prided itself on its grass roots leadership and organization.  As “Deep Throat” told Woodward and Bernstein, “follow the money”.  NTEU collects its dues at the national level and metes it out to locals while AFGE taxes its locals (around 40%).  I understand there are exceptions but these are the general rules.

Local unions are frequently composed of officers elected by the membership and shop stewards either elected or appointed. Most local officials are Federal employees who perform (or should perform) their internal union duties off the clock. That is what the law requires. Representation of employees may warrant the payment of official time if contractual and legal standards are met.


The above get a little complicated when you discuss councils of locals, national exclusive bargaining units and the like.  When all or most of an Agency is represented by a single union, the local unions will frequently form a council to handle affairs.  These councils, by their nature, are politically powerful within the national and can drive elections of national officers.  I have been told, for example, that NTEU national officers must get the vote of IRS members and locals if they want to get elected.  AFGE is bigger but the same rule applies.  Getting the vote of the big councils is critical.

Interesting Development

In recent years, AFGE has been seeking to hold recognitions at the national level then designate a local to represent employees. This follows a similar trend in NTEU. Of course, owning the recognition at the national level has internal political implications, none of which I have ever heard of being explained to the people who vote them in.

Non-Federal Employee Union Representatives

Some unions, like NTEU, hire a number of attorneys among its employees.  Others may require a union employee at the field level to have local union experience.

So Federal unions are private sector entities and an employee of one of these organizations is not a Federal employee by definition. However, Federal employees have taken leaves of absence to serve as a union officer, usually full time and usually at the national level. Whether a Federal employee can hold both a paid union job and Federal employment may be an ethics issue. Having said that, some Federal employees who are union officials have been paid for the time they were on leave without pay to represent employees. This is an area in which some people have gotten into trouble with fiduciary issues in the past and some have actually been jailed for what is known as commingling funds.

Union Employees and Federal Services

It is not uncommon for union employees to serve as chief negotiators for local unions or otherwise represent the union in grievances, unfair labor practices and the like.  What is uncommon is a discussion of what Agencies can, should or must provide these representatives. While, as you might guess, I have opinions on this, but it would be useful to find out what readers think about these issues. You can comment in the discussion section as with any FedSmith.com article..

  • Question 1.  Can union representatives who are employees of a union be given an email address and mailbox on the Agency system?
  • Question 2.  Can union representatives who are employees of a union be given internet access to the Agency system?
  • Question 3.  Can union representatives who are employees of a union be provided an office and equipment on Agency property?
  • Question 4.  Can union representatives who are employees of a union be provided an Agency ID badge and broad access to Agency facilities?
  • Question 5.  Is there any relationship between a Federal employee serving as a union representative and receiving compensation and the ethics rules governing post employment conflicts of interest?
  • Question 6.  What requirements should govern a Federal employee serving in a dual capacity when paid by the union? (e.g., lobbying Congress, giving paid addresses, conducting union classes, etc.)

I will collate your responses in a follow-up article. By the way, I appreciate your responses, favorable to my views or not.  After all, free speech applies to all in this country. On that note, it would be nice if NTEU and AFGE agreed to that concept and unlocked their websites for public view. What’s to hide folks, huh?

As always, any views expressed or implied in this article are mine and mine alone.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.