BIG YEAR AHEAD FOR NTEU
NTEU has a very big year ahead of it. It could be about to elect a new national president, its largest unit (IRS) will continue to get pummeled by Congressman Issa and others as part of the 2016 campaign, its membership decreased for the first time in years, and its largest contracts could see big negative changes. So, we thought we would let you know what to watch for as this highly regarded union works its way through each of those events and a few more.
ELECTIONS– Unlike AFGE, NATCA and a few other unions, NTEU has only two full-time, paid, elected national officers and both of those seats are subject to a vote this summer. The last two national presidents before the current one, Colleen Kelley, only stayed in the job for 16 years (four terms) before leaving voluntarily. This will be Kelley’s 16th year, which at least boosts the possibility that she also chooses to retire rather than take on another four years. If she does move on, another NTEU tradition is that the current National Executive Vice President moves into the presidential seat. NTEU has an heir apparent sitting in its VP slot who is much younger than Kelley, and highly experienced in national union management matters thanks to about 20 years as a national office staffer.
But, if he moves up, who moves in to replace him becomes a very intriguing question. Does NTEU fill that slot with another staffer rather than federal employee currently serving as a local union officer? If it does not put a current staffer forward for the job, what will its chapters do? The union has three large voting blocks, namely, its Customs and Border Protection locals who have the highest percentage of membership, its IRS data center locals, and all the rest of the IRS locals. The last three national presidents have come from the last of those three groups. Consequently, it would not surprise us this election if the other two groups insist that it is time one of the national officers came from its ranks. That could make for a very messy election convention—something NTEU is not used to.
MEMBERSHIP– Five of the six unions representing purely federal employees reported to the Department of Labor in 2014 that they increased membership last year, i.e., AFGE, NATCA, NWSEO, NFFE, and POPA. In contrast, NTEU membership decreased by over 2,000. That is something to worry about. We are not qualified to fully diagnose why, but we can see from a comparison of DOL LM reports to OPM Official Time Reports that NTEU has a number of what we like to call “Zombie” locals, i.e., units whose percent of membership has remained miserably low, e.g. below 25%, for a long time. (See “What To Do About Zombie Locals.”) That not only forces other locals to pay their share of the national union expenses, but it leaves untapped the most readily available group of potential new members—those employees the union already represents. Stepping up to that problem in an effective way would help soften the downsizing of its IRS unit.
BIG CONTRACTS– NTEU can justly claim to have some of the most thorough and imaginative agreements in the federal sector. Those benefits undoubtedly help keep the voting officials of its more than 200 locals happy enough with the national leadership to give those two leaders great latitude to run the union. Currently, NTEU’s contracts for the IRS and CBP units are open, and they cover the vast majority of its locals and electorate. Disappointing contracts could lead the electorate to pursue a little more involvement in the day-to-day affairs of the national leadership, whether that be its spending habits, its membership building efforts, its external organizing decisions, its planning process, its goal-setting, etc.
POLITICS– Congressman Issa has clearly made it his business to bash IRS at every opportunity. Not only has that helped his party generate campaign support, but it has also hurt the public’s impression of the IRS, made it a less attractive place to work, and provided a political foundation for cutting its staffing. Numerous media articles provide detailed hard data about how badly understaffed IRS is and how likely it is to fail this year, setting it up for another round of Congressional bashing. When the White House fails to defend an attacked agency, the only organization left to stand up for it is the employees’ union. Whatever NTEU did the last two years, it must find a way to be more effective. Otherwise, the only reason Congress may reject the building call to totally abolish IRS is that Issa would not want to give up a favorite punching bag. Keep an eye on what NTEU does to shield IRS from the grossly unfair political attacks, such as Issa proclaiming that the entire IRS culture is biased. That was a neat little bit of scapegoating that another political leader used with devastating effectiveness in 1930’s and 1940’s Germany. Yet, we have not seen a single media article pointing out that underhanded trick. That is even more reason why NTEU will have to lead this fight.
OVERVIEW– This could be a transformational year for the federal sector’s second largest union and that could have an impact far beyond NTEU’s borders. Does it start organizing in agencies it has not entered before? Does it find a way to preserve the in-house peace that enabled it to avoid a disruptive internal split? Does it reverse the building IRS funding crisis? Does it modify its national strategic plan? Does it involve local leaders more in setting the direction of the union, perhaps even as partners? Stay tuned. We are.