Match-making has gone high tech in nearly every corner of society.  Corporations long ago saw the value of strategic planning algorithms to find acquisitions, drive mergers, sell business lines, etc.  At the other end of the spectrum, E-Harmony, Jdate, Muslima, Amishdating, DateADwarf, and all the other DotCom dating depots are proof of how far down into our culture that analytical match-making has filtered.  But it has not hit unions yet. So, we thought we would speculate about how that could help the federal  sector unions, using NFFE as the focal point example.  (This is a revision of an earlier post based on corrected and additional facts.)

At one time NFFE was the dominant union for federal sector employees.  It was founded 15 years before AFGE and NTEU roots are as a breakaway element from NFFE.  FLRA records show that in a five-year period beginning November 1, 1982, NFFE was a party in over 300 of its decisions; in contrast, in the five-year period beginning November 1, 2009 only 28 FLRA decisions involved that union. Moreover, despite representing over 100,000 employees a decade ago, today it only claims about 8,000 members scattered across the government.  In most agencies it only represents a tiny portion of the employees.  So vulnerable has it become that it abandoned its independent status years ago to hook-up with the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers largely to prevent other AFL-CIO unions from raiding it.  And that highlights why unions need to think more scientifically about who they organize.  NFFE’s Forest Service Employees and State Department members are now in a union run by Machinists who represent no one else in their two cabinet departments. Was that really the best match for them?  In fact, how did the NFFE merger do anything for the Machinists’ union other than generate a few more dues dollars and permit it to claim a larger membership? Ironically, NFFE is now organizing private sector workers, which makes it a potential rival of the Machinists.

Most unions have made similar odd affiliation decisions, e.g., the American Federation of Teachers now represents health care employees, and the United Autoworkers  represent county sheriffs, Blue Cross staff, and health care employees. Generally, these matches were driven solely by the senseless “bigger is always better” perspective or the equally unimaginative “grow or die” crowd.  Consequently, it is time we federal sector union leaders thought about this a bit more strategically before we make any more peculiar, low-ROI decisions.

While NFFE represents the entire 1,200 employee Passport Service of the State department and a substantial part of the 20,000 employee Forest Service, it appears to represent employees at only 35 VA installations out of the more than 1,000 around the country.  It represents only one of all the HUD regions.  In both DVA and HUD AFGE is the dominant union by farrrrrrrr.  NFFE (along with NTEU) has a sliver of SSA, another AFGE dominated agency; a small foothold in GSA where an AFGE council also operates; and is one of at least six unions that have divided up the National Park Service (AFGE, NTEU, NAGE, LIUNA, and FOP). The rest of its units are generally scattered around DOD, where about a dozen unions claim some representational territory.

With tiny exception, where unions split employees anywhere below the agency level, management gains a great advantage over all of them.  Agency leaders can play one union against the other, and easily convince FSIP not to impose any union proposals that would force managers to operate different appraisal, award, promotion, or leave systems. So, unless a union is the first one to make a deal on something as complicated as the performance appraisal system, it has little choice but to accept the same deal that the first one signed.  Moreover, if one union takes the interpretation of an ambiguous agency regulation to an arbitrator even a favorable ruling will only apply to that union’s employees.  Tragically, the other union could simultaneously file its own grievance over the same regulation claiming the opposite interpretation. Our point is that, at a minimum, unions typically are better off when one union represents all unit employees of a particular agency.

So, getting back to the speculating part of this post, let’s consider those factors that would likely be at the heart of any union match-making algorithm.

ATTRACTION– NFFE would be attractive to both AFGE and NTEU.  AFGE would undoubtedly appreciate removing NFFE as a diversion or nuisance in the units it already dominates, e.g., VA, SSA, GSA, HUD.  Moreover, NFFE’s DOD units could likely be consolidated with AFGE units where both exist at the same installation.  That is another gain.  While AFGE would also welcome more members, NFFE’s 8,000 is chump change in comparison to the 300,000 AFGE claims today.

Given that NTEU only has 79,000 members, NFFE’s 8,000 is a more significant gain than it is for AFGE.    An affiliation also would give NTEU exclusive representation footholds in a few more agencies without having to spend tens of millions organizing them from scratch as it and AFGE did in TSA.  Among those agencies where NFFE has exclusive units are the Forest Service, General Services Administration, Coast Guard, Civilian Conservation Corps, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Geological Survey, State Department, and Indian Health Service. To the extent the NTEU leadership group’s mindset believes in “bigger is always better,” “grow or die,” or “second largest is never good enough” jingles, NTEU should be very interested.

COMPATABILITY– NFFE units, locals, and councils could be slipped into AFGE with barely a ripple.  For example, NFFE could continue its access to the highly regarded “Union Plus” member benefit program the AFL-CIO runs.  At worst, affiliation could mean two locals operating in the same installation/fort until they figured out how to merge.

The same cannot be said about NTEU.  NFFE has dozens of DOD locals and NTEU does not operate in DOD. Changing that would require a Constitutional rewrite or at least a formal legal “interpretation” of the Constitution by the NTEU National President proclaiming that despite its 75-year history of not entering DOD, it could now be done. We will not speculate on how its membership might receive that news given that it sets the stage for more organizing battles with AFGE, potentially reduces the political clout of its IRS and CBP units, and undermines NTEU’s current ability to lobby Congress to take money from the always massive DOD budget to boost funding in non-defense agencies.  If NTEU did not allow DOD locals into the union, NTEU could only bring in some of the NFFE locals, leaving the rest with the IAMAW.  Moreover, why would NTEU want the tiny NFFE units in VA, HUD and SSA where AFGE is already the dominant union?

Another compatibility issue for NTEU would be the councils that exist inside NFFE today, e.g., the Forest Service Council.  Typically, councils are composed of the presidents of all the locals in a particular unit and make the major representational decisions for that unit, e.g., which cases will be arbitrated, who will serve on bargaining teams, etc.  AFGE has long had councils, delegated many of them much of the national president’s power in representational matters, and found a place for them in its power structure.  In contrast, NTEU does not have them and would risk destabilizing the national president’s relationship with all its locals if it allowed NFFE to bring one in.  Any NFFE local or group of locals that go with NTEU would have to give up any power they have today to decide which cases go to arbitration, who presents the case, who gets a seat on bargaining teams, etc.

DUES– The news is real good for current NFFE locals whether they go with AFGE or NTEU. Today, NFFE’s national dues are over $650 per year, whereas AFGE members only pay approximately $250 a year in national dues. NTEU has a sliding scale where $350 is a representative midpoint in a formula where no one pays more than $500 a year.

OTHER– Both unions could easily absorb, i.e., employ, the NFFE national staff and two nationally elected NFFE officers.  While moving to AFGE would permit current NFFE staff to retain their AFL-CIO benefits and rights, a move to NTEU would likely put them in line for more substantial pay raises because it pays its staff much more than AFGE does. Neither union could provide current national NFFE elected leaders a place on the executive boards, but both could give them high level staff positions, e.g., reporting directly to the national president.  NFFE’s board would cease to exist. Indeed, the NFFE name would cease to exist as well unless NTEU used the occasion to change its own name.  After all, it has been over 30 years since it only represented Treasury employees.

CONCLUSION– In our opinion, AFGE would be the ideal place for NFFE based on these tangible factors, although we recognize that consideration of other factors might change that.  National dues could drop by almost $400 a year, NFFE councils could continue, many locals would find readily available AFGE locals with which to merge in order to boost local employee power, staff could continue their AFL-CIO benefits, and NFFE contracts would likely be quickly integrated with AFGE contracts in units AFGE dominates today, e.g., SSA, VA, HUD, etc.  (That is an advantage because, typically, the union representing the greatest number of employees in an agency has the better contract.) We will also assume that AFGE would relish keeping NTEU boxed up in the agencies it represents today while adding more federal agencies to its own union family. In fact, most believe that the only reason that NFFE affiliated with IAM rather than AFGE was a lingering resentment against AFGE for having successfully raided NFFE when it was outside the AFL-CIO.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that some NFFE members would be better off in NTEU too, e.g., it has a larger and more skilled national staff than NFFE, more staff offices than NFFE around the country, and shares the union’s cost of any arbitration with the local.  NTEU’s strategic advantage over AFGE is that it is not constrained by the AFL-CIO internal rules. Consequently, it could open affiliation talks or initiate organizing raids tomorrow.  (If a local rather than national NFFE holds the certificate of recognition those locals could leave NFFE for NTEU immediately after a vote at a local union meeting.   (See NAGE, 25 FLRA 728 (1987))  NTEU could put together a package (financial and political) and present it to the leadership of whatever NFFE units it wanted to motivate to jump from one union to another.  The Forest Service would appear to be the most attractive target with 20,000 unit employees spread across 79 locals–if NTEU could virtually guarantee it could increase membership to the 40% level within two years.  Based on NFFE DOL reports it appears that barely more than 1,000 of them belong to NFFE today.  The NFFE Department of Interior units would substantially increase NTEU’s clout in that cabinet agency where it represents only a tiny portion of National Park Service employees today.

In other words, NTEU alone is in the best position to start changing the current, often senseless, dispersion of federal employees across more than a dozen unions, e.g., AFGE, NTEU, NATCA, NFFE, SEIU, IFPTE, NLRBU, NLRBPA, POPA, NWSEO, AFSCME, FOP, PASS, etc.  However, the far more intriguing option would be for AFGE and NTEU to work together to boost their own power and the power of those employees dangling like near useless appendages from the structure of much larger private sector unions. Who knows where such an informal alliance could lead. We recognize that is harsh, but the life of federal employees is about to get a lot more harsh unless unions adapt.

Our apologies to the NFFE folks for any discomfort this caused. We hope you recognized that we never suggested your union is bad or ineffective.  Our comments were all about how to get more clout for the employees represented by NFFE today.

One final note to the believers of the “grow or die” “bigger is always better” mantras. We agree those can be valid perspectives in some cases.  But don’t try to argue that they apply in all or even most situations.  According to Forbes, VW is the largest auto manufacturer in the world as measured by annual sales. Its sales were 6 billion more than Toyota’s, the second biggest as measured by sales.  However, Toyota’s profits exceeded VWs by 6 billion and its market value by $74 billion.  An even more stark contrast is between BMW and Ford. BMW’s sales were only two-thirds of Fords, but it made the same profit and its market value was 30% greater than Fords. NTEU is about one-fourth the size of AFGE, but its investment wealth is four times larger than AFGE’s. NTEU investments are about $500 a member while AFGE’s are about $30. a member.  Expansion is tricky business that should never be resolved by humming business magazine ditties.  They key question is not size, but what will boost a union’s clout on behalf of members.  Often that is nothing other than doing more with the employees the union already represents, e.g., boost membership, increase member political activity, build alliances, get more media support, etc.

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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1 Response to

  1. Peter Winch says:

    Rick Brown was the NFFE President at the time of the merger with the IAM. He was a Machinist by trade (at the Watervliet Army Depot), and a former IAM member, as were his father and grandfather before him, making IAM the sentimental choice for merger partner. When the NFFE VA non-pro unit voted to go over to AFGE, the pro unit voted by a slim margin to remain with NFFE, leaving them with a literal rump unit of (some) pro’s at only a few medical centers, especially at San Francisco and Fargo — they do represent pro’s at some regional offices, but there are only a handful of employees involved. Article XX of the AFL-CIO Constitution would bar AFGE from expressing any interest in an IAM unit, unless invited to do so by IAM itself.

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