Why a Federal Employee Union Lost its Collective Bargaining Rights in South Korea: Mayonnaise

Rationing the sale of mayonnaise in South Korea was a factor in a federal union losing representation rights

What may be little known is federal civilian employees assigned to U.S. military bases around the world are entitled to have federal unions represent them.

Currently, there are a number of U.S. installations in foreign countries which have American teachers at their Department of Defense Dependent Schools facilities who are represented by unions under the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute (Statute). Other federal employees at U.S. facilities abroad are also entitled to representation.

Federal Union at Yongsan Army Base

Back in the very early 1980’s, there was an active National Federation of Federal Employees bargaining unit (Local 1336) in South Korea at the Yongsan Army Base in Seoul. It represented U.S. Army civilian employees.

I traveled to Korea while assigned to the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) Regional office in Los Angeles to handle the litigation of cases relating to a dispute between this union and the Army.

On my first trip to Korea, the country was under martial law and at seemingly every street corner from Kimpo Airport to my hotel there were machine-gun nests with South Korean soldiers guarding the intersection. This was my introduction to Korea. 

The next morning when I looked out the window of my hotel, there was a mass of Korean people down below clearing snow from what would be considered a major road with two lanes in each direction. They were using pieces of wood and not shovels.

When I have considered over the years why South Korea has become an economic powerhouse, the vision of men and women clearing this road by hand comes to mind as an early indication of what the Korean people would go on to achieve.

That morning I took a taxi to Yongsan which was the Headquarters for the U. S. Eighth Army in Korea. The taxi dropped me at a gate.

I proceeded to show a Republic of Korea (ROK) soldier guarding the gate a piece of paper I had been sent by the Army which supposedly would give me entry onto the Post. The ROK soldier was having none of it.

After a half-hour of freezing (it was snowing) and unsuccessfully convincing the soldier to let me on the facility, I suddenly realized I had something that might work. I took out my U.S. Air Force Reserve ID. He looked at it and gave me a look of “what kind of idiot are you, why didn’t you show me this to start with?” and let me through the gate.

I made two trips to Korea for the FLRA. After about 40 years since my last trip where one trip starts and the other ends is not crystal clear. Unfortunately, I may mix them together a little, but some of the essential interactions remain in my mind like they took place yesterday.

Ration Control and Mayonnaise in Korea

The major issue in Korea at this time was ration control.

Civilian employees and military members were entitled to use the commissary and exchange at U.S. military facilities in Korea. However, they were not free to buy unlimited amounts of certain items. These items were “rationed”.

At that time, the U.S. government did not have the wherewithal or desire to bring in unlimited quantities of certain items such as mayonnaise. These limits were imposed also to prevent sales of rationed items on the thriving black market in Korea. Apparently, soldiers and civilians would buy excess amounts beyond the ration control limits to give to Korean friends which might end up being sold on the black market. 

Interestingly enough, while walking around Korean open-air markets near Yongsan, I came upon all manner of American commissary goods on the ration control list that were for sale, much of which was still in the boxes it had been shipped in. Apparently, it never made it to the commissary shelves.

Soldiers and civilians were limited in the amount or number of certain items they could purchase.

In the recent past in this country, think toilet paper. If you tried to buy more toilet paper than the store said you were allowed, nothing actually happened to you. It was self-enforcing.

However, in Korea at this time, there were stated amounts of rationed items, such as how many jars of mayonnaise you could buy over a given period of time, and your purchases were closely regulated. If you ran out of an item, you either tried to buy it on the local economy or did without it.

Hoarding was not allowed. Violations of these ration control limits were considered a ration control violation subject to discipline up to removal for civilian employees. Violations by civilian employees could also result in having your contract to work in Korea revoked and you could be made to leave to the country. 

Actions taken against civilian employees were for the most part summary with no appeal right or any other due process rights. Violations by military members were less severe. 

Bargaining on Ration Controls

Needless to say, the union representing federal employees in Korea believed this was unfair. They wanted to bargain with respect to ration control. The union filed a negotiability appeal and the FLRA found ration control to be negotiable.

The Army appealed this decision to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals which upheld the FLRA decision. The Parties agreed to try to settle the issue because there was an outstanding unfair labor practice complaint concerning a refusal to bargain after the FLRA decision. I was sent to Korea to try to come up with a settlement.

In the meantime, the NFFE Union President had an “altercation” in the commissary concerning ration control. No action was taken as a result of this “altercation”.

Employees who worked in Korea served under the equivalent of contracts for a period of time. They could have these contracts extended and in fact, employees who did the same kind of work as the union president had never had an extension request denied.

When the union president’s period came up for renewal, his request for an extension was denied. This was the first time such a request was ever denied. 

This became part of the saga of ration control. The union president had married a Korean national and did not want to leave Korea, so he filed an unfair labor practice charge which I was sent to Korea to prosecute. 

There were two issues in Korea: resolving the question of bargaining over ration control and litigating the discrimination against the union president.

Litigating the case concerning the union president was unusual. There was no question that the top leader of the Army organization that the union president worked for considered the president a “thorn in his side” and should be “thrown out of Korea” because of the problems he had caused about ration control.

Mickey Mouse wears an Eighth Army Watch

The union president on his part did not endear himself to the Army. One of his favorite sayings was “Mickey Mouse wears an Eighth Army Watch”. 

What was unusual was that I got knocks on my door at the hotel in the middle of the night from military managers, one of whom traveled back from Hawaii and another from Germany just so they could testify against this military commander who was alleged to have discriminated against the union president. It is an understatement to say they really disliked their former military commander.

Apparently, he did not discriminate against individuals he treated everyone terribly. I won the case. 

The ration control issue had a couple of surprising twists. I, along with representatives of the union and high-ranking civilian and military managers including a couple of general officers, met for long days and nights hammering out a settlement.

We’d finally come to an agreement that amounted to a due process system for civilian employees somewhat comparable to the way the military handled ration control violations. We set up a meeting with the four-star commander of the Eighth Army for what we all thought would be a signing ceremony.

Upon entering his office, I was introduced to the General as a representative of the FLRA and an Air Force JAG reservist. He told me he regretted my poor choice of serving in the Air Force. I thought it was a joke but he actually meant it.

I could see things were not going to go well and they didn’t. The General who had a huge bible on his desk began to sermonize about how he was personally responsible for defending the free world. He then took the agreement and tore it up in front of me and said this meeting is over.

To say the least, all of us were shocked. With that done, the ULP case was set for hearing and a return trip to Korea, which never took place. 

National Security and Bargaining Rights

While the case was being readied for trial, President Reagan issued an Executive Order using 5 U.S.C. 7103 (b) (1) of the Statue as authority to remove collective bargaining rights from the NFFE union in Korea based on national security.

Under the Statute, the President has a non-reviewable right to remove employees from coverage under the Statute. They lost their rights to bargain over mayonnaise. This ended the ration control case.

Many Presidents have excluded employees from coverage under the Statute. President Obama removed a number of employees from coverage under this provision of the Statute. President Trump delegated this authority concerning DOD employees’ coverage to the Secretary of Defense. I’m not aware of the Secretary exercising it or if in fact it is delegable. It’s a powerful provision particularly since the action of the President is non-reviewable. 

Luckily for federal union presidents, during the life of the Statute, comparatively very few employees have been removed from coverage. However, no telling what the future will bring with this very partisan divisive country we live in now.

Mayonnaise Is Now Available

My wife and I traveled to Korea a few years ago for leisure. She had heard the stories of my trips so we decided to make a trip there.

The transformation was amazing. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay. However, it was very different. Gone were the machine gun nests, the pungent smell of the charcoal-like substance used to heat the homes, apartments and seemingly everything else which took many washings to get out of your clothes when you got back home to the U.S. Also gone was the need for ration control. I could find mayonnaise easily, but what was gone was Local 1336.

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email info@jsafed.com or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.