Union Appears Close to a Win in GAO Vote

Posted September 19, 2007 at 6:47pm

More than a year ago, about 20 Government Accountability Office employees began meeting in the basement of Holy Rosary Church, covertly outlining their plans for creating the first labor union at the GAO since it was founded in the 1920s.

The union drive began as a project between senior analysts Patricia Donahue and Jonathan Tumin; a reaction, they say, to a GAO management that was unresponsive to their needs.

On Wednesday, hundreds of GAO analysts voted on whether to have a union, some openly walking down the narrow hallways with stickers asking co-workers to “Band Together” and vote.

As of press time, the votes hadn’t been counted. But union supporters were predicting a comfortable win. “I’m very optimistic,” Tumin said. “My impression is that many people support this effort.”

Donahue and others reported that a steady trickle of employees came to the polls throughout the day to put their paper ballots in cardboard boxes, and some estimates put turnout at more than 60 percent of the 1,800 employees who would be represented by the union.

A union will be formed if more than 50 percent of those voting agree to do so.

It has been a long journey to get to this point: For years, Donahue said, many GAO analysts didn’t know they could have a union at all.

But tensions rose when Comptroller General David Walker restructured the pay system in January 2006, denying about 300 employees cost-of-living raises despite positive performance reviews. Walker said some GAO employees had been overpaid and that he was trying to put in place a system that more fairly rewarded its best employees.

A secret effort to form a union began.

“I think what prompted Jonathan and me is that we saw immensely talented people who felt deflated and defeated and we saw they lacked the confidence to challenge it,” Donahue said. “We felt as though there had to be a better way.”

At GAO headquarters, offices are stacked one next to another, creating a labyrinth where hundreds of employees work on one floor. Camaraderie was low before the union campaign, Donahue said, and some employees felt alone in their discomfort with some management policies. Since the union drive, he said, new friendships have formed and employees have a “bounce in their step.”

“People who were very, very hesitant are now leaders in their office,” Donahue said. “They thought they were the only ones suffering. The more we got together, the more we found that the problem [of management concerns] was systemic.”

A GAO spokeswoman declined to talk about the election, saying that Walker would only comment once the vote was over. But Wednesday’s vote was the conclusion to months of haggling between Walker and GAO analysts over which employees the union could represent and whether management was handling the campaign correctly.

At one point, Walker received an unfair labor practices charge from the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, the umbrella organization that the GAO union will join if formed. It claimed that Walker did not stay neutral during the union’s campaign. The charge was later dropped.

In recent weeks, Walker has appeared on an internal video promising to stay neutral and left voice mails Tuesday urging employees to vote.

On Wednesday, employee excitement was clear: Two guards stood outside the polling room, warding off any media or outside parties. Just a few floors up, senior analyst Robert Kershaw greeted co-workers in the hallways and excitedly chatted about the outcome of the vote.

On Sunday, Kershaw started a Web site, gaounion.net, for employees to discuss the future of the union. The site, which he said he will turn over to GAO union officials, is structured like a blog with videos and subjects for visitors to comment on.

All this is in preparation for a successful vote, after which IFPTE will hand over control to GAO employees.

For the past few months, IFPTE has taken over the campaign for the union, organizing the outreach effort and finding employees to help out. But if Wednesday’s vote is successful, all control goes back to GAO employees. They will have to hammer out the rules, leadership positions and its organization.

Eventually, members will elect an executive board and will begin to negotiate a bargaining agreement. First order of business: negotiating a new pay structure.

“We need to do this more quickly than people realize,” Tumin said, “because we want to have a permanent structure in place.”

But the union’s fate will really be decided by how much employees embrace it, said senior analyst Henry Sutanto.

“It really hinges on employees themselves to become members of the union,” he said. “It’s not all about the vote.”