WHY 17,000 EEOC CHARGES MATTER TO UNION LEADERS
One of organized labor’s biggest mistakes was to turn over to the government and private attorneys enforcement of the over 30 labor laws unions worked so hard to push through Congress. As a result, tens of thousands of employees each year rely on a federal official or private attorney for help with an employment problem rather than turn to a union. Unions made themselves significantly less relevant by turning this representational work over to others, and, sadly, too many federal sector unions are going down the same self-destructive path that their private sector predecessors did.
The EEOC just reported that federal employees and job applicants filed over 17,000 complaints against federal agencies in FY 2011. They involved terminations, demotions, suspensions, missed promotions, objectionable appraisal scores, loss of status, lay-offs, and denials of reassignments, leave, pay increases, equal pay claims, reasonable accommodations, etc. If unions position themselves to enforce the relevant laws through grievance arbitration, they are far more valuable to employees for three reasons. First, they can enforce an employee’s rights for the price of monthly dues rather than the thousands of dollars a private attorney would charge an individual.
Second, unions can enforce more employee rights than either the government or private attorneys can when an employee is mistreated. For example, assume that an employee, who is a union steward and Hispanic, is passed over for promotion a month after complaining to her supervisor that she is not being paid the overtime money she is owed. If she goes to her union, it cannot only file a grievance alleging possible FLSA retaliation, union animus, and national origin discrimination, but also enforce compliance with any contract terms, agency policies, or past practices the agency might have violated. Some might call that taking six bites at the apple.
In contrast, without a union the employee has no way to enforce any past practice or even agency policy rights she may have. Moreover, she will have to file two separate actions, namely, one with the EEOC alleging national origin discrimination and another with OPM (or the Dept. of Labor if a private sector employee). If she wants a private attorney to do these for her she will have to first write a check for thousands of dollars to retain him or her.
If the employee goes to OPM and EEOC herself, she has double the work to do and no one with expertise to advise her before she speaks with the government investigators or signs affidavits.
Third, private attorneys and other federal agencies have to file subpoenas or undertake similar formal procedures to get information out of management when an employee complains. Unions get the information without that formality due to a special right given them in the law. They also usually have long-term relationships with key managers they can use to skip over formalities.
There are several reasons why most unions let all this work and power drift over to others, but the more important question today is why, in a nation awash with a litigation culture, they do not correct this immediately. Why do they not hire more attorneys for staff positions so that they have the in-house (and less expensive) expertise to do arbitrations involving multi-statute violations or at least advise local union leaders doing those cases? Why do they not train stewards in the easy-to-apply criteria for determining whether one of the labor laws has been violated? Why do they continue to encourage employees to take their discrimination charges to the EEO office rather than into the grievance process?
If your union is one that has not positioned itself in the contract and with staff expertise to do these cases or a union that routinely sends members with EEO complaints to the EEOC regulatory process, it is time to consider that you are giving away a big chunk of your relevance.