GAO, Union ‘Very Close’ to Agreement

Posted July 18, 2007 at 6:15pm

The Government Accountability Office and International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers continued talks Wednesday as the two sides tried to broker a deal over the makeup of a bargaining unit, should agency analysts vote to unionize.

As of press time Wednesday, the two sides were “very close” to reaching an agreement, according to sources.

Negotiations centered on how best to address workers who GAO management contends serve in supervisory roles and thus aren’t legally eligible for unionization. Classified as “Band IIB,” these workers represent about one-third of the 1,500 GAO analysts who petitioned in May to hold a unionizing election.

Julia Akins Clark, who represented the union in the negotiations, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A spokesman for the GAO also did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Significant progress had been made between the agency and union in recent days. Aside from addressing the Band IIB employees, the sides had moved forward in regard to probationary employees, a group GAO management had pushed for inclusion in the election process.

The union had fought that effort, arguing probationary employees should have their own bargaining unit. But on Tuesday afternoon, IFPTE officials met with about 30 GAO employees — and several more teleconferenced in from field offices around the country — to discuss the options for the eventual makeup of a bargaining unit, according to several analysts.

At that meeting, analysts decided to allow probationary employees to join the union.

“We worried they would be retaliated against,” said one senior analyst who attended the meeting. (All the analysts interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity.) “But management was insistent on including them. … We’re happy to have them, but we’re worried for them.”

Concern centered on the fact that because probationary workers could lose their jobs more easily compared to established employees, management could use them as pawns, the analyst said.

“We are naturally more concerned about whether there would be more retaliation,” she said.

Even as that issue was settled, talks between the two sides regarding the Band IIB employees continued past press time on Wednesday.

Some progress on that front has been made in recent days, however. GAO officials said last week that it would drop its challenge if employees are divided into two separate bargaining units, with one for Band IIB staff and the other for other workers.

The union then made a counteroffer rejecting that notion but moving to allow the analysts to hold a self-determination vote on how their bargaining unit should look. The GAO then moved to have the vote divided into separate groups — Band IIB and other workers.

But at the meeting Tuesday afternoon, GAO analysts unanimously agreed that the union should represent a single bargaining unit made up of Band I, IIA and IIB workers, several analysts said.

“They want to suggest that IIBs are different than IIAs, and therefore are justifying the split,” one analyst said. “We think the split was unwarranted, unjustified, improper, and we didn’t want to do anything that would indicate any support for that. So, our feeling is band together, all the bands we can.”

Another GAO analyst said Tuesday’s meeting was a positive step for the overall union effort.

“I’m much more optimistic,” he said. “If [Comptroller General David] Walker tries to fight, then every day he fights, the majority that the union will win by will grow because Walker has lost credibility with the agency.”

If the agency and the IFPTE cannot come to an agreement, the issue will be decided by the GAO’s Personnel Appeals Board. Two prehearing conferences are set for July 24 and Aug. 22, and a full hearing is set for Aug. 27.

Analysts said they are hopeful that they will get to vote on whether they will join the IFPTE by September. It remains important to GAO employees that the issues that drove the unionization fight in the first place — mainly salary restructuring and the denial of pay raises for some employees — are addressed, one of the analysts said.

“We so need [Capitol] Hill to help us on this immediate issue, because we are seeing people, great people, walk out the door,” she said. “And if they walk out the door, that’s the Hill’s expertise.”

Matt Biggs, who serves as legislative and political director for the union, said several Members have been helpful throughout the union effort. Most recently, union and GAO officials met with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) on Tuesday to discuss the process.

“She’s been very supportive of the workers at the GAO,” Biggs said, adding that another supportive Member is Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia.