WHAT’S NEXT FOR NTEU—AND YOU?

There are two reasons why NTEU might have a big impact on your union soon.  First, it is about to install a new national leadership after 16 years under the current one. New leaders often mean substantial changes. In fact, if new leaders do not try new things the organization usually deteriorates because the policies and perspectives of the past almost always lose their effectiveness with time.   Second, unlike all the AFL-CIO affiliated unions that are prohibited from raiding one another, as an independent union NTEU is free to raid wherever it likes—and with over $40 million in the bank it has the cash to do it. So, we thought we would share with you the brainstorming we have been doing about the options NTEU has for its future—and yours.

Let’s explain what NTEU is before we go into options.   Over the 75-plus years it has existed, NTEU has adopted certain traditions or policies.  First, it has set out to be a union of federal white collar employees engaged in law enforcement or administration.  It has not gone after blue collar employees, e.g., DOD mechanics.  Second, it has avoided trying to pick up tiny pieces of agencies that are already largely organized.  Its preference is to get everyone in an agency into one unit in one organizing drive because that maximizes a union’s clout in that agency.  Third, it does not organize in the Department of Defense.  DOD was almost fully organized by AFGE, NAGE, and NFFE when NTEU adopted its current persona in the mid-60s with a new Constitution.  That not only made it too costly to organize anything significant in DOD, but enabled NTEU to portray itself as a union specializing initially in only IRS, ten all of Treasury and now the rest of government outside DOD.  Moreover, staying out of DOD has enables it to lobby Congress to take money out of the DOD budget and redirect it to the other part of government.

Here are the potential directions it could take soon after the August national elections.

Option #1 –NTEU could turn its resources and focus almost exclusively within and try to boost its current operations, effectiveness, and clout.  From DOL and other reports, it seems that about 60% of approximately 140,000 employees it represents pay dues.  That leaves substantial room for improvement just among the people it already represents, as opposed to spending huge sums to organize new employees who will present their own membership challenges. In order to achieve the proper level of intensity to break through existing in-house membership hurdles, this would likely prevent NTEU from spending the time and staff resources to organize new groups.  NATCA appears to have about 80% of all its represented employees paying dues, making it a good benchmark for a goal. Moreover, NATCA has achieved some outstanding things for its members at FAA by focusing almost exclusively on one agency or occupation line.  NTEU could find that an attractive way to help it turn around the mess Congress has left IRS in, NTEU’s largest unit.

Option #2 – A slight variation of Option #1 would be to mildly supplement an unprecedented and intense internal focus on improving the clout of what NTEU already has by luring, without raiding, other independent unions to affiliate with NTEU, particularly, white collar, non-DOD unions.   The National Weather Service Employees Organizations (NWSEO) and Patent Office Professional Association (POPA)  come to mind immediately, even though neither seems to have the percent of membership that NTEU’s core IRS and CBP units have.   If the former affiliated with NTEU, weather service members would likely get a dues cut while POPA members would have to increase their bi-weekly dues deductions to afford NTEU.  (POPA reports that its current annual dues are only $135.00) However, unlike NWSEO, POPA operates in an agency with three units and the other two are NTEU locals.  The right affiliation deal could expand POPA’s clout in the agency.   Irrespective of the amount of dues to be paid, those two unions would suddenly have six union departments and dozens of staff stationed around the country available to help members, a well-funded national office to help fight off any raid by another union, and access to several financial discount programs available to NTEU members.

Option #3 – If NTEU leaders decide to place even more of its resources into simply increasing the number of employees it represents, it could move beyond trying to woo independent unions to approaching non-DOD units that already are affiliated with other unions.  NFEE and IFPTE, currently affiliated with the AFL-CIO,  would be likely targets.  The former represents the 20,000 person Forest Service while the latter represents smaller units in high profile agencies like the General Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, and NASA.  Neither NFFE nor IFPTE are as well funded to fight off NTEU as AFGE, AFSCME or SEIU.  Each also represent non-DOD federal employee units. Of course, other AFL-CIO unions could decide to help those NFFE and IFPTE fight off NTEU, which would drive up NTEU’s cost of organizing them and drive down the support NTEU gets from other unions legislatively. Of course, a head-to-head organizing fight with the AFL-CIO might also result in it making NTEU an offer to join the AFL-CIO in returning for one or both of those unions being placed under its jurisdiction.

Option #4 – Rather than raid the units already represented by other unions and create a lot of bad will among them, NTEU could try to negotiate a deal with other unions that would boost the clout of both unions.  For example, AFGE represents a larger portion of EPA than NTEU does, and based on DOL reports AFGE also seems to have twice the percentage of employees as members.  NTEU could propose to swap its EPA unit for AFGE sending NTEU people AFGE represents in an agency where NTEU wants to grow, e.g., Interior.  While neither union can force an individual unit such as EPA to voluntarily move to another national union as part of a national-level deal, each national office could make it very attractive, if not unavoidable, for those units to follow the plan.  The advantage for the EPA employees would be that their union would now represent everyone in the agency and no longer get pitted against (whipsawed or contradicted by) other unions when bargaining or lobbying Congress.

Option #5– A variation on #4 would be for NTEU to propose a total merger with another union.   NTEU is much larger than IFPTE and NFFE and could offer those unions and their leaders some very attractive advantages of folding themselves into NTEU so that NTEU could proclaim that it now represented close to 200,000 employees.  The disadvantage of both unions for NTEU is that they currently include DOD units as well as non-federal employees, potentially compromising NTEU’s strategic advantage from not representing DOD employees.  NFFE and IFPTE also have a much smaller percentage of the employees they represent paying dues and some very tiny units in agencies where other unions are much bigger. NTEU would have to invest money to build their membership penetration levels to more reasonable levels.

Option #6– NTEU could offer to merge with much larger unions that already represent federal employees, such as SEIU or AFSCME.  NTEU would be very attractive additions to either, giving it considerable bargaining power over merger discussions.  Even though NTEU would become a small part of much larger international unions, it potentially could ask to have all those unions’ current federal sector units placed under its control as part of creating a large federal sector division or district in each union.  For example, the 1.4 million member AFSCME  currently represent federal employees at the Library of Congress, the Department of Justice, the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Peace Corps, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Voice of America and the Architect of the Capitol. Hooking up with a large union would enable NTEU leaders to run for leadership positions in those larger unions.

Conclusion – Interesting decisions lie dead ahead for NTEU that could change its very nature or simply bring in a large enough federal employee unit to shift the internal politics and priorities of the union.  On the other hand, it could  decide that the “grow or die” leadership philosophy is a nonsensical financial trap costing it millions in organizing drives that do not produce many more dues paying members even when the union wins the election. (It was not that long ago that it spent millions trying to organize TSA via a very professional campaign, only to lose.  Many will remember that) If NTEU rejects the “grow or die” slogan, it could follow the NATCA model and put the vast majority of its efforts into rebuilding IRS or simply expanding in Homeland Security, where it has only one unit today compared to AFGE that represents almost everyone else there. Both are critically important to NTEU’s future.

Given that we have no way of knowing what the next national leaders have planned or are discussing with their kitchen cabinet of closest union local leaders–or just the people whose votes they need, we will all have to wait until after its convention to see what it means to us. Initiating waves of change among federal sector unions that result in more rationally organized and efficient union structures would be a very good thing.

About AdminUN

FEDSMILL staff has over 40 years of federal sector labor relations experience on the union as well as management side of the table and even some time as a neutral.

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