GAO, Union Eligibility Pact Near?

Posted July 16, 2007 at 6:31pm

After months of dispute, the Government Accountability Office and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers could be nearing an agreement as to which GAO workers are eligible to unionize.

In May, a majority of the GAO’s 1,500 analysts filed petitions to hold an election to decide whether they will become part of the IFPTE. But that election has been delayed as the two sides faced off over whether one-third of those workers are legally allowed to join.

GAO officials contend that those workers serve in supervisory roles and can’t unionize; the IFPTE disputes that claim.

On Monday, legal representatives for the union and the agency met to hash out issues related to the eventual makeup of the union — and which workers would be eligible to vote.

Those representatives remained in meetings as of press time Monday evening. But Paul Shearon, secretary-treasurer for the IFPTE, said a few options had emerged and that union officials would be talking with GAO analysts about those options as early as today.

“I think we are getting very close to the decision on whether we have a deal or we don’t,” Shearon said, declining to give specifics.

In a statement, the agency said it will “continue to be open to further discussions and to settling this matter.”

“We have made several good-faith offers to the IFPTE in an attempt to reach agreement on the issues in dispute,” the statement reads.

If the two sides are unable to come to terms within coming weeks, the agency’s Personnel Appeals Board will step in. The board officially set a hearing date that will determine which workers should be allowed to vote for representation.

The current conflict began a few weeks after the workers filed their petitions, when the agency announced it would challenge the eligibility of “Band IIB” employees. The GAO argued those workers serve in supervisory roles or positions that require confidentiality and thus aren’t eligible to unionize. GAO officials also asked that probationary employees be allowed to take part in the election.

The union disputed those claims, saying the supervisory tasks are minimal and that probationary employees should be handled in a separate bargaining arrangement.

On June 21, the IFPTE filed an unfair labor practice charge against Comptroller General David Walker, arguing that the agency chief has violated labor laws by not remaining neutral during the campaign. (Walker has maintained he supports unionization rights and that he has been neutral throughout the process.)

All of that bickering managed to significantly delay the election that will determine if GAO analysts even form a union. Union officials had hoped to hold it this summer, but now the best estimate is that it could take place this fall.

But some progress has been made in recent days.

According to a newsletter sent out to GAO analysts on Friday, the GAO offered to withdraw its challenge to the Band IIB employees eligibility if the union would put the employees into two bargaining units — one for Band IIB workers, the other for the rest who petitioned for representation (as well as probationary workers).

After meeting with GAO employees, the union made a counteroffer to reject the idea of separate bargaining units but said it would allow GAO staff to vote in an election dealing with two questions:

1. Do you want to be represented in a unit made up of Band I, IIA and IIB staff?

2. Do you want to be union represented?

The union also decided it would not be appropriate to include probationary employees, “given the significant differences in the terms of their employment as compared to permanent staff,” according to the newsletter.

On Friday, GAO management dropped its requirement for separate bargaining units and agreed to a self-determination ballot. But the agency asked to limit the vote to two groups: one group would be Band IIB employees, and the other group Band IIA, Band I and probationary employees. Under the GAO’s offer, each group would be asked the same two questions, although probationary employees would be included, the newsletter reads.

Those questions remained at issue Monday. While Shearon declined to say what specific terms the sides had discussed, he did say some progress had been made.

“We want to take the options to the employees before we discuss them publicly,” he said.

An administrative judge with the PAB will be charged with making the final decision if the two sides can’t come to an agreement.

Plans already are under way for such an event. According to a prehearing conference report issued by PAB Chairman Michael Doheny last week, the agency has until today to submit documents the union requested during a prehearing conference held July 3.

And the union has until July 24 to submit to the board and the GAO a written statement as to why probationary employees should not take part in the union process.

Two additional prehearing conferences are set for July 24 and Aug. 22, according to the report. A full hearing is set for Aug. 27 at PAB headquarters and will continue through Sept. 7, if necessary.

Meanwhile, Members of Congress have urged Walker and the GAO to allow the unionization process to move forward.

A bipartisan group of Senators is circulating a letter asking Walker to withdraw his challenge to the Band IIB workers and stay neutral in the effort, according to the IFPTE.

And Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, is set to meet with union and GAO officials today to get an update on the union effort, according to a spokesman.

“I will be closely monitoring the process to ensure that the rights of the workers to organize are upheld,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement.