Why Do Feds Join Unions and Pay Dues?

The author poses this question to FedSmith readers: if you currently pay or used to pay dues to a federal employee union, why did you choose to do so?

Which side are you on?

After several years as a Labor Relations Specialist at a Naval Shipyard in the 1980s, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to invite union representatives to management training. Conducting training in separate silos was part of an overall management strategy. They trained theirs, we trained ours, and we had a bigger training budget.

That model began to change shortly after I left the government and got into the training business. I worked under the skilled tutelage of FedSmith founder, Ralph Smith, and his business partner, the late Dennis Reischl.

I had done plenty of representation and negotiation, but had virtually no experience in front of groups and little interest in business. Dennis and Ralph were former Labor Relations Specialists, exceptional instructors, and genuine entrepreneurs. One of their earliest and largest contracts was with the FAA.

At that time, the dust had settled following a disastrous PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) strike and newly-hired Air Traffic Controllers had formed a successor union – NATCA (National Air Traffic Controllers Association). Dennis, Ralph and I were part of a larger team hired to present the government’s first comprehensive joint union-management training – for Air Traffic facilities across the country. We barnstormed the country, in my case from Boston to Anchorage to Tampa/St. Petersburg and points in between.

Ralph, Dennis and I kicked off these three day seminars with a day of basic labor relations training. That would be followed by teams that specialized in organizational development and communications. At the outset I was uncomfortable standing in front of seated and suspicious partisans. It was no secret that I had sat on the management side of the table. NATCA representatives were rightfully wary as to whether the technical information I presented was free of bias. That tension soon dissipated and I began to question why joint training hadn’t been considered long before this project.

That was almost 30 years ago. Today, when I present seminars for supervisors, managers and HR specialists, my agency clients are urged to invite union representatives. This is the case even when the topic is dealing with (and possibly firing) the most difficult government employees. Some Federal activities don’t have unions representing their employees. Others feel the union’s presence will deter management officials from asking specific questions or speaking their minds. Most are fine with the idea, believing that learning the same information in the same setting is advantageous.

…and now the question

As most FedSmith readers know, union membership is voluntary in the Federal sector. This provision of law is often referred to as an “open shop” in labor parlance. Unions must represent non-dues-paying employees as they would those who support the union financially. This situation involving members and “free riders” has vexed Federal labor unions for generations.

All of the union representatives attending my seminars are also dues-paying members. I often take time in labor relations classes to ask them why they joined the union, given the fact that they could enjoy the protection of union without the financial commitment they have made. Better put, what is it that motivates them to pay hundreds of dollars each year to these not-for-profit membership organizations? Many of those responding had never been asked before. Most of the managers in attendance have never considered the answers that emerge.

I know that unions are unpopular among many FedSmith readers. Most skeptics, however, have never been union members and many have never asked the question themselves. So that’s the purpose of this brief column. If you pay (or paid) dues to a Federal employee union, why did you choose to do so?

In addition to answering this question, readers should feel free to forward this page link to union members you know who might have confirming or differing responses to the question. The rest of us may learn something from your (and their) answers.

Replies can be posted to the comments section that follows this piece. …and please don’t become distracted by the responses of FedSmith “trolls” who will inevitably add doses of silliness or vitriol to this exercise. Their lives are small.

Union members, it’s your turn.

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to trainingfeds.com.