WHAT AGENCIES THINK WHEN UNIONS TERMINATE THEIR OWN LEADERS
AFGE recently terminated its second highest elected official, which makes this a good time to think through how agencies might react and unions can counter those reactions.
Unless this or any other terminated union leader has committed a crime, unions look enormously hypocritical moving directly to termination given how vigorously they typically demand that agencies practice progressive discipline. That makes it only fair that agencies should respond by challenging any union contract bargaining demands for progressive discipline clauses and other penalty softeners. Under the current Trump-appointed FSIP it is unlikely agencies will need much more than a simple request to purge disciplinary hurdles from their contract, but a union’s own hypocritical actions are precisely the kind of facts that this new Panel will respond to very enthusiastically. Depending on the amount of evidence the union produces in a termination action, it is also likely agencies try to take back any evidentiary protections unions have negotiated.
Unions have three potential rebuttals, although it is unlikely this new Panel gives a damn about any of them. First, union discipline is governed under a different statute than that for federal employees, making comparisons speculative at best. That union statute does not have Douglas factor requirements nor additional collectively bargained protections. Indeed, it allows the termination of union leaders based almost solely on raw political power. The good of the union plays little to no role. This newest case with AFGE is hardly the first where the terminated leaders claims he was fired merely to prevent him from challenging the union president for office or blowing the whistle on some of his/her very questionable use of union funds.
Second, the National President of AFGE or whatever union is involved deserves credit for taking formal, public action against a union leader by using that process, e.g., proposing formal charges before the national executive board, holding a hearing and requiring a majority or greater vote to impose discipline. The AFGE President, like any other union president, could have just shut off the targeted leader’s security access, locking him/her out of the building, and authorized the spending of thousands and thousands of dues dollars for lawyers to browbeat a “settlement” with the leader, e.g. five, six and even seven figure settlements are unfortunately legal uses of members’ dues. The advantage for the national president is that it is not hard to buy the terminated leader’s silence about certain facts and events that the national president is eager to keep from the Board and the public. It is only money and not even the National President’s own money–just members’ money. The financial aspects of the settlement will likely be ultimately disclosed in the union’s LM reports over several years for those who still care, but no one will ever know what the terminated leader promised to keep silent about, destroy, or not do in the future. So, in AFGE’s current case we think President Cox deserves a lot of credit for taking the courageous, public route to terminate a union leader rather than hiding the facts from members and using their dues contributions to buy his way out of any potential mess. Not every union leader has the spine to prove charges publicly rather than tap the union treasury for his/her own personal reputation protection.
A third rebuttal is that by taking formal action rather than using an under the table settlement the National President has placed him and the entire union in jeopardy. For example, AFGE’s terminated leader is now free to share with the public things he knows about AFGE and the folks who voted to terminate him. We have to presume that having worked his way to a high office in the union he has seen and heard some things Cox would rather not have out there.
An even more potentially damaging move would be for the terminated leader to sign on with another union outside the AFL-CIO. Those union are in a position to lure away from AFGE locals supportive of the terminated leader or locals that would leave if they knew what the terminated leader does.
Fourth, if the terminated leader does not want to throw in with another union, s/he can always challenge the dismissal at the union’s convention and then the Department of Labor. An appeal by a terminated top union leader can throw a real damper on the good feelings that most union president’s hope drive conventions. Along the way, the terminated leader could even run for his/her former office or against the national president. In fact, just yesterday the fired AFGE leader announced his formal candidacy to unseat Cox.
As we said above, all in all we think AFGE’s President deserves credit for using the formal process rather than member’s dues money to buy the political privacy he desired. While the union statutory disciplinary process may not carry the protection of the Douglas Factors, these other heavy potential costs of using it should be enough for most reasonable observers to dismiss any agency effort to exploit AFGE’s or any other union president’s power move. That is not to say that we agree with the action Cox and his Board took against the terminated leader. Union leaders just below the union’s national president are in constant jeopardy from the uncut paranoia that seems to run through the veins of most national union presidents. They are known for seeing even the most well-intentioned suggestions of other leaders as mortal threats not just to themselves but the entire union, if not the American labor movement and world-wide industrial democracy.