Told, “You Don’t Need a Union Rep?” The Supreme Court Disagrees

If federal employees don’t get the assistance they need from their unions, do they have other options?

In 13 years with the government, I’ve found that most of us are not just cashing a paycheck. We’re intelligent professionals, and specialists in our fields.

Beyond that, we are people who deserve equal treatment in the workplace at no lower a standard than set by workplace rules and federal law. That is the minimum.

This article will discuss a real case of workplace bullying that involved an employee whose manager violated the National Agreement between her union and agency, as well as federal law.

After the story, you’ll have a clear sense of what the agreement is, and the US Supreme Court’s decision. 

Lastly, we will discuss union representation. Mostly, how if your union representative is too weak, or too much of a weasel, to fulfill the duty volunteered for, there are other tools you can use.

Before the Story, Why Would I Say a Union Rep Might Not Help?

Federal employee union reps have earned a good reputation, but there are some skunks, weasels, wimps and scoundrels in the ranks – people who volunteer so they can add it to their annual review with no intention of helping anyone. There are also basic union functions that fall by the wayside, like this NTEU page for Chapter 53 that notes the “2010 pay chart” and implores you to read the latest Chapter Steward’s comments, for which there are none.

Highlighting Chapter 53 makes it seem like an isolated issue, but even a cursory audit of the listing of IRS Chapter Sites tells a much different story. For example, when I clicked on the National Office link it led to a page advertising that domain name for $488, meaning that, as I write this, someone could buy it – perhaps someone with anti-union sentiments – and promote it as evidence of just how useless unions are, generally, but NTEU, specifically.

And please know that I’m not blindsiding anyone here. Last year and this year I tried to bring website issues to multiple people’s attention. Whatever it is that dues are spent on, it is not customer service via web development!

Getting to the individuals who represent the union, when I was at the IRS Office of the Chief Counsel, I sought out the union rep to join. She was not just unhelpful, but a rascally sort.

“Why do you want to join?” she asked. “Are you reporting your manager?” then quickly added, “you don’t have to tell me.”

“I want to sign up for the dental plan,” was my answer.

“There isn’t a dental plan. Just talk to your manager about what’s bothering you.”

If it sounds crazy that I left the meeting without any of the necessary paperwork to join, and that she did not know there was a dental plan, just wait until you find out that (A) she told my manager I was going to the union about her, (B) she is a lawyer, (C) that union rep/lawyer lost her computer privileges for a period of time based on her doing something very stupid, and (D) I know about the last thing not because it affected me, but because she told me, unprompted.

In the end, joining the union was like joining the Freemasons: I had to ask 3 times.

True Story of a GS-09 Employee

Before telling this story, I do want to say that it is not the norm. In fact, a colleague of mine said in response to hearing about it, “If I’d have ever tried to pull a stunt like that when I was a manager, a union rep would have been slamming his fists on my desk…if I was lucky enough to keep my job.

The Story

A friend of mine had a manager who used bullying to mask her incompetence. For procedures that had been forgotten, the onus would be put on the new employee, and then training of that employee might be put on a team member who was also being bullied.

This friend was not a new employee or young kid, but a retired soldier who’d received perfect 5’s on her last annual review.

About 6 months into this new role, my friend brought up certain deficiencies in the office. They included PII violations, employee safety, and blatant disregard for health protocols during COVID-19.

The manager initially told the employee that “[this department] isn’t for everyone. You could just resign. Or request a new manager.”

Hearing she could transfer, she submitted the request. The transfer was denied, and when the employee asked why, she was told “you know why.” After this, the manager gave the employee the silent treatment – not responding to emails, and teleworking when the employee was in the office.

Without going into the details of the workplace bullying that took place (the silent treatment was just a part of it) I’m going to stick to the details of just the 1 meeting.

Wanting to start a paper trail, the manager scheduled a formal meeting with the employee. The employee called the union rep, who said he couldn’t make it, but also wouldn’t insist the manager move the meeting. She asked for advice on her situation, and he said that “some managers are just like this,” encouraging a go along to get along approach. 

The employee emailed the manager to say the union rep was not available. The manager insisted the meeting would happen no matter what.

Thus, the crux of this article is: Employees entering a meeting that they reasonably believe could include disciplinary measures are entitled (by at least 2 authorities) to have a representative.

The National Agreement

Where I work, we have NTEU as our union. They say it better than I can:

Article 5 Section 4 (A): “Any employee……who reasonably believes that an interview by a representative of the Employer may result in disciplinary action has the right to representation, if requested, by a person designated by the Union.”

Article 5 Section 4 (E): “If an employee appears for a scheduled interview without representation and reasonably believes……that disciplinary action may result, the employee may request a brief delay to secure such representation.”

Beyond this, there are Weingarten rights.

US Supreme Court Ruling

Per the 1975 USSC ruling, “Weingarten rights guarantee an employee the right to Union representation during an investigatory interview.”

There’s more to learn about this, and how it favors employees, but the most basic information you need is that if there’s reason to believe you could be punished, you can insist on a union rep, and if the meeting turns in that direction when you didn’t think it would, you can also call a rep, or insist the meeting not continue without one.

If All Else Fails, Can You Call a Friend?

I would love to say, “go to your NTEU office,” but the one by me at the Brookhaven Service Center (Chapter 99) is unoccupied. A voicemail went unanswered, and I can’t find a chapter website. In doing a test of multiple websites, Ogden’s is a rarity in that you can send a direct message, which was from whom I got the National Agreement language.

So, if you can’t get a hold of someone, can you call a friend to be by your side? Could you reach out to me?

No. After communicating with someone at NTEU via email, I was referred to a rep in my local area, who let me know the following: Bargaining unit employees in need of union representation are advised to contact their servicing Chapter to arrange a meeting with a trained steward.

I asked about the office being locked, phone calls not being returned, and being unable to make contact through the website. Then I followed up.

No response has been received.

It’s not as bleak as it seems. While it’s true that some people – even union reps – cannot be counted on when there’s trouble, the law is on your side, and you have agency over your own life. The friend I mentioned in the story above could not count on her union rep to even make an informative call to the manager about basic rules that protect everyone, so had to handle the situation herself by reporting the violations to a higher authority, and then finding a new job.

But there are a large number of us who want to help managers follow the right procedures to do their job better, and prevent employees from being treated unfairly. If this person is not a union rep, they can provide moral support, or even technical support, in helping you. Even as a GS-05, I once brought resources to the attention of a co-worker who was having trouble, and it helped her get a long-desired transfer. However, I could not represent, only offer her a tool that she had to use to fix what was broken.

Wait! I Have the Perfect Person to Help Me, but They Are Not a Union Rep

According to what I was told, unless the person is an attorney – preferably with the union – only your rep can be by your side. If this person really will fight for what is right, he or she needs to fill the steward role in a formal capacity.

In Conclusion…

You are a public servant, not a doormat for bullying bosses who don’t even know the rules they are trying to use against you.

As such, you have the USSC and your union’s formal agreement on your side, which are two layers in the foundation on which we stand when interacting. Other layers include ethics and decency. There are also union reps, some of whom are competent.

Beyond that, you are a human being and deserve to be treated with dignity. You are equal to those around you. As such, we should all be accountable for our transgressions and rewarded for our triumphs. And for everything in between, it’s not too much that we be left alone if we can’t be treated well.

Christopher Pascale is a federal employee currently serving with the IRS. His writing has been published in The Journal of Accountancy and Marine Corps Gazette. He is currently working on a biography about Vice President Charles Curtis, which is related to his Ph.D studies at SUNY Stony Brook.