GAO Employees Work to Launch New Union

Posted December 4, 2007 at 6:28pm

Ten weeks after forming the first-ever union at the Government Accountability Office, analysts are struggling to get over the necessary growing pains to form a cohesive bargaining unit.

Elections for an interim council began this week and will end Monday, providing about 1,800 GAO employees with the first representation they’ve ever had. But it comes weeks later than analysts once predicted, partly because of disagreement over whether specific seats for minority groups were necessary.

In the meantime, GAO management hasn’t had anyone to talk to about some of the issues that motivated employees to form the union in the first place — including a pay system that left 300 employees without their annual raises in 2006.

Across-the-board raises and performance-based bonuses are scheduled for distribution in January, but GAO officials must speak to the union before doling it all out, said Comptroller General David Walker.

“I’m looking forward to them getting organized at the local level because we’ve got major decisions that have been on hold in absence of having anyone to deal with,” he said.

Walker said officials have instead been speaking to the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, the national umbrella organization that includes the GAO union. Conversations have focused on which meetings union representatives can attend and which issues need to be addressed, Walker said. Analysts say volunteers chosen by the IFPTE have sat in on meetings and become liaisons for employee issues, such as a study on the performance review system.

But without designated leadership for the GAO union, some analysts say they are left in the dark. The interim council will hopefully fix that problem, they say, by putting in place a clear local leadership.

“I would say it’s been a situation characterized by true growing pains,” said senior analyst Jonathan Tumin, who helped found the union and is running for a seat on the council. “It’s been stressful. Then again, I don’t know if there was a way around it.”

After elections end Monday, the union will have an interim council of 39 analysts, each representing a specific group. The temporary panel will not only negotiate with management but also will create the structure for a more permanent union board. But coming up with the temporary board was a difficult task, causing disagreements over the number of seats and the necessity of representatives for specific minority groups.

In the end, there will be seven “diversity” seats, representing groups such as black, Asian and disabled employees. The idea was based on the structure of the Employee Advisory Council, which preceded the union and acted strictly as an advisory group to GAO management. It provided guaranteed seats to specific organizations, such as Blacks in Government. But Walker has temporarily suspended the group’s activities in light of the union’s formation.

“That, of course, made people who were sitting on the EAC rather uncomfortable, and they felt disenfranchised and excluded,” said Regina Santucci, an analyst who headed the task force that created the interim union’s structure. “We would not backtrack. … We could not legitimately say we could not have” that same representation on the union council.

But getting to that point took weeks of meetings, and some analysts still disagree with the decision to include diversity seats. The prevailing structure includes seven seats to represent specific minority groups within the union: Asian/Pacific Islander, Black/African-American, Disability, Hispanic, Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity and two at-large.

Anyone can run for any of the seats, whether of that minority or not, and anyone can vote for them. How all of this was decided is debatable — some analysts say IFPTE forced their own view; others say it was decided by a majority of those who attended meetings. (IFPTE officials were unavailable for comment before press time.)

But many are hoping the conclusion of the elections will mean GAO employees can take the reins of their own issues and use IFPTE as simply an information source and adviser. Internal disagreements hopefully will give way to “bread and butter issues,” said one analyst, where everyone is in a “united front.”

“We’re all doing something new and different and at the moment there’s a bit of stumbling,” Santucci said. “But we are going get there.”