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Elections Have Consequences: Rebellion in the Ranks at NTEU

“NTEU Contrarians” have a website to express their concerns about the lack of democracy in the union and its direction.

Does anyone out there remember Vincent Connery?

Vince was the national president of the National Treasury Employees Union until replaced by the union’s then General Counsel, Bob Tobias. Tobias held the job for about 20 years. After Vince’s departure, NTEU gained a reputation for concentrating power in the national office and for requiring all dues collected be sent to Washington DC and then parceled out to the locals.

I did a web search on NTEU’s website and could find no mention of Vince, who passed away in 1991, despite the presence of a history page. That page only mentions the current national president and vice president. Even Bob Tobias, who has gone on to Academia, had only one name mention in a site search that turned up an old (1999) press release about Al Gore.

Apparently former presidents of the union become non-persons after departing.

The NTEU history page in its number one bullet states that the union “Won $533 million in back pay for federal employees when an appeals court ruled against President Nixon’s 1972 pay raise deferral.”

As a side note and in contrast, AFGE’s history page generally gives credit where due to prior leaders.

Current NTEU President Colleen Kelly appears to be taking heat over the loss of TSA to NTEU’s archrival, the American Federation of Government Employees, last month.

It was a grudge match, you know. In the 1990’s, her predecessor allegedly spent $8,000,000.00 trying to unseat AFGE at the Social Security Administration and lost. John Gage, the current AFGE national president, was then a local president of the headquarters SSA union. Gage led the successful bid at TSA by AFGE. There’s no telling what NTEU spent on the failed TSA bid but apparently the loss provoked some dissatisfaction in the ranks. According to the “NTEU Contrarians” website, Ms. Kelly is in hot water for allegedly selling NTEU’s HQ building without, they claim, consulting the membership or the local union leaders not to mention the TSA loss. According to the “Contrarians” comment page, the union is facing a 500 arbitration case backlog because its ubiquitous lawyers were out organizing TSA.

Interestingly enough, the Comments section on the ”Contrarians” site carries this header: 

Anonymous Member Comments

(In order to prevent retaliation from NTEU National Office leaders, all potential identifying information is removed. As an aside, isn’t it a damning statement on where we are at as a union when we have to worry about retaliation from our own NTEU leaders?) Want to add your comments? Send an e-mail to: [email protected]

As an observer of Federal sector unions for the last 38 or so years, I noticed the trend by their national offices to consolidate power. NTEU, according to insiders, has always sought to have the national office hold the FLRA certification as exclusive representative as opposed to locals or councils of locals.

In recent years, AFGE has moved in this direction as well. The key effects are in regard to money power and direction. If dues are paid to the national union instead of locals, those locals are beggars, not taxpayers, as used to be the predominant case at AFGE. “Follow the money” has become a synonymous with tracking who calls the shots.

If you follow the money at NTEU and AFGE, the trail leads right to the top. If money=power, then Ms. Kelly and Mr. Gage are certainly the principal power brokers among Federal labor unions, calling shots in the President’s LMR Forums at the Cabinet level.

With regard to union direction, I recently posted articles about “model language” coming from AFGE. Agency Representatives have always known what NTEU would put on the table by looking at the last set of proposals they made at the last Agency they bargained with.

The “Contrarians,” if concerned about locals having a greater voice, are facing an uphill battle at NTEU. I’m willing to bet that some of the larger AFGE locals or Councils may think twice before giving up their certification to the national union after watching what’s going on at NTEU.

There’s another dimension to all of this. By Federal labor law, if there’s no agreement or upon expiration of an agreement, one union can challenge another. The bigger the bargaining unit, the less vulnerable that union becomes to a challenge by another union. So, for example, if NTEU wanted to challenge AFGE at the Department of Veterans Affairs, it would have to come up with over 30,000 names on a petition. AFGE has pretty much locked itself in at DVA and as NTEU has done at the Internal Revenue Service.

Union politics, particularly in the Federal sector, are usually very “behind closed door” affairs. These “Contrarians” have shined a little light on how things work in these organizations who claim to be among the last bastions of true democracy. John Gage, in a union press release about Organizing at TSA said, “I am particularly proud of AFGE’s diversity, our union democracy, and our bottom-up emphasis that keeps our rank-and-file members first and foremost.”

“Union democracy and (our) bottom-up emphasis?” True or false, you decide.

If you read an opinion in any of the above, it is mine and not that of Fedsmith or anyone else but me.

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.