The Impasses Panel just sent a very loud and clear message to unions working for employers that bargain with multiple unions. The Panel is more than willing to take away bargaining rights from the last union to settle with management in a mid-term bargaining dispute.

The Topeka, Kansas Veteran Affairs facility (AFGE, 12 FSIP 97 & 98) decided mid-term to impose a dress code throughout the facility. Like many federal installations, it had several unions representing different units within the facility. It is not unusual for there to be multiple units and unions of maintenance staff, office workers, guards, professional staff, firefighters, and others bargaining with a single employer.

In this case, the Topeka VA began bargaining separately with each union and reached a deal with the NFFE and NAGE units, but not the AFGE unit. When AFGE took the dispute to the Federal Services Impasses Panel, it expected to get its day in court to explain why its members needed a different agreement than the other two unions. What AFGE got, however, was an order from the Panel to “Show Cause” as to why the Panel should not force it to accept the same contract terms that the other two units accepted. Once the briefs were filed, the Panel decided AFGE did not meet this vague and unspecified criterion of “cause,” and ordered AFGE to accept the same agreement the other two unions already had.

Is this the worst thing to ever happen to labor unions? No, not even close. But neither is it a good thing. At some point in the past FLRA certified that the AFGE-represented employees did not share a community of interest with the employees it allowed to be represented by NFFE and NAGE. That gave each of the unions the right to bargain their own agreements. Now FSIP has effectively tossed aside the FLRA decision that the three units are different by starting with the assumption that what works for one unit should work for the other. (An ironic part of all this is that AFGE represents tens of thousands more VA employees than either NFFE or NAGE.)

The first reason this is not good for the unions is that it gives management a great reason to start the bargaining with the union that has the least interest in (and/or power over) the proposed mid-term change. Once it gets a signed deal, it can pressure the other more interested and/or powerful unions to accept that initial agreement. This decision shows that would be a real threat to the other unions and that likelihood will weaken the unions with the strongest objections to a change.

The Panel decision also penalizes those units that choose to affiliate with a union not already representing employees of the common employer. For example, if four other unions already represented separate units in a VA hospital or similar multi-unit situation, voting in a fifth union increases management’s chances to play games with all five unions. All other things being equal, the employees of the fifth and last unit to organize would be better off joining one of the four existing unions. If they are a big enough group, they could dominate the pre-existing unit and its local union.

Frankly, we favor consolidation of units so that all employees of a single employer speak as one, whether it be to a VA hospital director, and Army base commander, or even a federal prison director. If the employees and their existing unions cannot get themselves into one unit under one union, then FEDSMILL’s brain trust recommends they go back and consider the approach followed by AFGE, IAM and MTC (5 FLRA 126) when they won “joint certification” and designated AFGE as the lead representative of the three unions. Doing so, should prevent the employer from dividing and conquering the various units represented by different unions.

There are other legal approaches to counter the Panel’s predisposition, but we hope that the Panel realizes that the heart of bargaining is the production of an agreement that both parties believe they had a fair chance to shape. Telling either party at the beginning of a dispute that the Panel is predisposed to deny them that opportunity by using a “show cause” order often will only fuel further disruptions at the work site.  We are not against “show cause” orders; in fact, they can be a powerful tool for the Panel.  However, we have our doubts they are appropriate to pressure one union to accept another union’s agreement.

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.
This entry was posted in FLRA, FSIP, Strategy/tactics. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.