In a little less than 60 days, Colleen Kelley, National President of NTEU and one of the more visible figures in federal sector labor relations, will retire after 16 years in that job. So, we thought that before she left we would say, “Thanks” and take this opportunity to wander down memory lane looking back on all that has happened in NTEU and around the federal sector since late 1999, the dawn of this century. She deserves credit for so much.

Colleen followed two major figures in the history of federal sector unions. Vince Connery used his 16+ years (1967-83) as NTEU national president to purge the controlling influence of IRS executives from the organization, haul the union out of technical bankruptcy, push through passage of the labor law all fed sector unions operate under today, commit the union to hiring attorneys as field representatives, and transfer political power from a dozen or so district union vice presidents to himself so that NTEU could operate as a united, centralized union.

Bob Tobias took over in 1983 and for the next 16 years relentlessly expanded NTEU’s jurisdiction outside the Treasury department, pounded away in the courts and other litigation venues establishing vital legal precedents for all feds, negotiated some novel contract provisions–such as the guaranteed incentive award program that eventually was paying IRS employees about $70 million a year in awards, helped usher in the experiment in labor-management partnership, and built close political ties with the White House and Congress.  He also tapped Colleen Kelley to replace him by making her his Executive Vice President at the beginning of his last term.

Colleen took office in 1999, which turned out to be the contentious closing months of a Democratic Presidency, and right in the middle of a massive, politically-motivated reorganization of the IRS, NTEU’s biggest unit.  By the time the reorganization was over,

  • IRS had effectively been split into ten semi-autonomous agencies breeding inefficiencies, employee dissension and disparate treatment;
  • employees had been saddled with dozens of extra procedural requirements to do their job that crushed morale and productivity, and
  • two political watchdogs had been implanted in IRS to generate critical reports that a hostile Congress could use to continuously criticize IRS.  Those watchdogs are the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) and the National Tax Advocate.

But that was only the beginning of a long slow slide for NTEU’s IRS unit.  Although it started the century with around 115,000 employees, IRS ended FY 2014 with only 78,000 (See IRS Data Book for 2014 -Table 30)  Today, even the IRS Commissioner admits it is a very damaged agency. IRS has so many dings, dents, and damage that it is ripe for political demands that it be abolished and replaced, a long-held goal of an extreme right wing group in the country seeking to defund the entire federal government.  Absent someone building a record for when that demand gains traction, no one will ever remember then that it was the politicians who set it up for this trouble with constant claims of unverifiable IRS scandals purely to gin up campaign contributions, ridiculous budget cuts, and crippling oversight.  Fortunately, throughout this time Colleen maintained a strong, positive relationship with every IRS Commissioner so the union’s voice could be heard throughout the agency.

Another reorganization went better for the union.  When President Bush formed the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, NTEU was able to win an election against AFGE to represent half of the Customs and Border Protection unit. NTEU also played a part in the decision to upgrade all CBP Officers to career-ladder GS-12s and in getting them a variation of early law enforcement retirement benefits. However, that would be the only Homeland Security unit NTEU represented.  Despite spending millions in a campaign against AFGE as well as diverting thousands of staff hours into organizing efforts at TSA, NTEU could never overcome the membership head start AFGE got by wisely forming an employee association years before TSA’s collective bargaining law and NTEU finally made a decision to organize TSA.

Despite NTEU’s failure to snag the 40,000+ TSA unit, it managed to continue to pick up several much smaller units, such as the NPS, NCUA, CFTC and CFPB.  Nonetheless, IRS and the NTEU half of CBP continue to be the backbone of the union, generate the overwhelming share of the dues, set the tone, and provide the financial base while the newly added units struggle to achieve good membership support. (At its August convention the union will address whether to let the next President have the unilateral power to start organizing in DOD, the largest federal agency, which offers NTEU the chance to externally make up for the loss of membership in IRS and elsewhere.)

On a brighter note for NTEU, its General Counsel, Greg O’Duden, working with the legendary Mark Roth, the AFGE General Counsel, successfully gutted via a lawsuit the President’s attempt to abolish collective bargaining for Homeland Security employees. O’Duden also fashioned the legal strategy that led to the $173 million in back pay for Special Rate employees—and a whopping amount of attorney fees, enabling the union to buy a $40 million HQ office two blocks from the White House.  (The union sold the building about eight years later as the real estate market started to recover for a nice profit, enabling Kelley to leave the unions with over $30 million in liquid investments.)

During the last 16 years, the union’s Negotiations department also developed a strategy of statistically scrutinizing agency EEO numbers on how awards, promotions and other benefits were distributed. When it found sophisticated statistical evidence of illegal adverse impact, it launched what in effect were NTEU class-action civil rights grievances that often brought harmed employees millions in back pay.  This particularly benefited employees in those agencies where the union negotiated pay. In addition, it won hundreds of millions in back pay awards for its CBP members with pending clams dating back to FY 2000. However, NTEU has been unable to collect despite repeated efforts by Kelley to extend olive branches in the hopes of creating a positive relationship between the union and CBP executives.  As we have said before, the NTEU-CBP relationship remains one that is almost exclusively an “all litigation all the time” one.

Kelley also deserves credit for making NTEU a wonderful place to work.  As we pointed out in previous pieces, such as Compare AFGE, NATCA, NFFE & NTEU By the Numbers, she devoted about 49% of its annual budget to staff compensation costs.  That is about 15% more than the next closest fed sector union, enabling her to pay an average staff salary about $30,000 above the market rate for similarly situated unions—according to the unions LM DOL annual report.  Today, former members of NTEU staff can be found all over government and other unions in significant labor relations posts thanks to their time at NTEU.

As you can tell, Kelley has been a strong advocate of building relationships with agency executives. She applauded the Obama administration decision to form Labor-Management Forums throughout government and boost employee/union pre-decisional involvement in otherwise nonnegotiable agency decisions. Unfortunately, despite her tireless efforts to offer the union as an ally for management—as well as an advocate for trusting and empowering agency staff, the benefits of these forums have been less than anticipated nor even what the “partnership” program of the 90’s achieved.

Although it appears no local union leaders have assembled enough experience to be early favorites to replace her, Kelley has groomed two staff members to continue her work in the union’s two highest offices.  Neither has been a federal employee, but they know federal employees issues and have substantial experience running the union’s centralized operations.

There is little doubt that NTEU would not be where it is today without Kelley’s commitment to trusting others with authority, sharing information, building teams, automating, experimenting, strategically planning, holding people accountable, focusing almost exclusively on big issues, and pushing critical decision-making as far down in the union as she could to build strong local leaders.  NTEU convention delegates have elected her repeatedly by at least 85% of the vote and they will have many reasons to applaud long and hard when she leaves the leadership podium for the last time this August.

The last 16 years have been a mix of good and bad news for federal employees.  AFGE added over 100,000 new dues paying members through a creative use of incentives, strategic planning, and modern management techniques.  It also doubled the size of its Political Action Fund to $2.2 million in just four years.  That is good news for everyone.  The 2000 Gore campaign, which Kelley strongly supported, coincidentally approved of 125 Flexible Spending programs for federal employees near the time of her endorsement.  Feds also saw improvements in the availability of telework and Long Term Care Insurance.  The Obama Administration even appointed high-level staff from AFGE, IFPTE, AFSCME, and NFFE to critical case law setting positions at FLRA and MSPB. On the other hand, military pay rose faster than civilian pay thanks to civilian pay freezes, transit subsidies rose and fell, employee retirement contributions increased, sequestration caused considerable pain with furloughs, retention stipends were authorized but never funded, award system budgets were capped by the White House, and most recently the lack of prevention has resulted in massive hacking of their personal on-line data.

The unmet challenges ahead of NTEU and other unions are clear. They must—

  • Focus heavily and primarily on boosting the political involvement of employees through PAC contributions, working in local elections, and voting. A hostile Congress and some segments of the public are much greater threats to feds than agency managers and executives, who suffer just as much as unit employees.
  • Educate the public with information about all the good the federal government and its employees do for Americans to overcome the corrosive anti-government elements spewing slogans such as “government is the problem” and “good enough for government work.”
  • Hold down costs by automating some services and boosting membership in those already-organized units with chronically low employee support, e.g., below 30%. (Automation will be the key to survival if union official time is ever seriously diminished.)
  • Educate all employees, not just local union leaders, about their rights in law, regulation and contracts.  This country does a horrible disservice to those in high school and college by not spending any time covering the employment law rights that will shape the next 50 years of their lives. It is the equivalent of giving them diplomas without ever teaching them to multiply or read beyond a sixth grade level.  If more employees knew their rights and options they would more easily see the benefit of unions.
  • Explore ways to pool the resources of the various unions on such matters as a public relations program and employee education. Even better, find ways to work closely together, if not merge, to create more efficiencies and lower costs. Unions are not going to survive, much less thrive, if they ignore modern management tactics purely out of a philosophical predisposition. For example, we recently posted a piece entitled, “Do DOD Employees Need NTEU Or Does NTEU Need Them” and pointed out 62 FLRA 272 (2010) which showed that six unions and 15 locals of those unions represented the employees at a single DOD installation in Norfolk, VA. We will debate anyone about how wasteful and self-defeating that is.
  • Don’t just limit alliance building to other unions, but reach out to SEA, FMA, PMA and another other groups focused on the interests of federal employees to boost your collective clout. The difference among those constituencies are a small fraction of the interests they share.

We will close with a wish that the next NTEU National President picks up where Colleen and Tobias left off and uses the union’s unique position as a catalyst for change throughout the federal sector union community, reaching out to other union leaders, posing provocative adjustments, etc. Connery introduced a novel approach to unionism, Tobias perfected its emphasis on tight centralized control and professionally trained staff, and Kelley has maintained it.  It may just be the time to break that 50-year-old mold and do something even better.

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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