If you follow the NTEU National newsletter you have seen that the delegates at its upcoming August convention are going to consider whether or not the National President should retain the power to decide to organize in the Department of Defense (DOD). Veeeeery interesting! So, we want to think out loud about that for a few minutes.

First, you can’t blame NTEU.  Its dues paying membership has declined recently and DOD has about 700,000 employees who could fill that shortfall nicely if they (1) chose NTEU and (2) also joined. Given AFGE’s enormous success in signing up new members since the start of the century, it is only reasonable for NTEU to think about entering DOD to catch up.

Second, NTEU has the money. Oh, boy does it have the money! It told DOL that it has over $30 million in reserve investments. It also has the staff because unlike some other unions all its staffers work exclusively for the National President. None of the District Vice Presidents or local presidents, who might object to the diversion of staff time, employ any.

Third, there are some DOD units that appear to be easy targets.  Not long ago one federal sector union at an Air Force base went on the public record announcing that out of the 251 employees in its unit, only six paid dues. It should not take much to raid that unit. Those numbers scream that the employees are not happy with their current union.

Fourth, the NTEU Constitution is vague enough to allow its National President to proclaim s/he does have jurisdiction to move NTEU into DOD. The objects of this national organization shall be to organize into units of ex­clusive recognition, employees of the Federal government who perform work similar to that performed by Department of Treasury employees, and who share similar goals, objectives, problems, and concerns of those experienced by employees in the Department of Treasury….” (Article III, Section 1)  Treasury employees do everything from heavy engineering at the Mint and repetitive data entry at the IRS to complex financial bank analyses at the Comptroller of the Currency and tax prosecutions in federal court of international thieves. The ambiguity of the current Constitutional language is wide enough to back a Walmart-size fleet of trucks through; it is certainly flexible enough that an NTEU National President could use his/her powers to “interpret” the Constitution (Article IX, Section 6) to overturn NTEU’s more than 75-year old practice of not organizing in DOD.  (More than a few unions lost organizing elections to NTEU over the decades because NTEU boasted that only it was in a position to lobby Congress to move funds from DOD budgets to the domestic agencies because only NTEU did not represent any DOD employees.  Most other unions did have DOD units, preventing them from fighting for fair funding all around.)

Finally, under the NTEU Constitution its National President is not required to inform its National Executive Board of a move into DOD before the union does so, “The Board shall consider a decision by the National President to seek exclusive recognition among employees of the Federal government who are not employees of the Department of Treasury at its next scheduled meeting.” Consider??? Other sections of its Constitution require Board approval, but not this one. (Article XI, Section 5) We know what the previous National Presidents’ thought, but NTEU is about to get a new one.

Finally, and most importantly, it has a great representational product to offer. NTEU has dozens and dozens of labor lawyers spread out across seven offices between the east and west coast that any DOD employee in trouble would love to spend time with.

This is an intangible asset, but NTEU also has a structure that resembles a military organization with virtually all assets under the control of one person. A lot of DOD employees might like the Commander-in-Chief model.

But, as with any significant policy question, there are arguments pro and con.  Here are some of the reasons that suggest this would a foolish waste of a great union’s strengths.

First, there are far more than a dozen unions representing DOD employees already, among them some of the biggest in the country, e.g., AFGE, AFSCME, SEIU, LIUNA, IAM, NEA, AFT, Metal Trades Council, Teamsters, etc. NTEU saw how costly and difficult it was to go up against just AFGE for the unrepresented TSA unit. While each of the unions already in DOD probably has some small vulnerable units due to poor local leadership and low membership, each national union is a sophisticated mature union, and if they ever teamed up NTEU might find itself depending its own units.

Moreover, raiding other unions is really, really frowned upon in the Washington, DC union community. Given all the political threats to federal employees, domestic budget cuts and the deliberate targeting of IRS employees now is not the time for NTEU to alienate any allies.

Second, running a union in DOD is far, far different than the world NTEU occupies of white collar regulatory and law enforcement agencies. In DOD unions have to deal with base commanders who have total power over who gets on their base. While it is mildly difficult for them to exclude a union-supporting DOD employee who already works at a base, swatting away union staffers is no harder than smacking down one-wing flies. DOD employees are more vulnerable than other feds because most need security clearances to work there. Those clearances can be pulled for almost no reason at all with little chance to get MSPB or the courts to reverse that. A quick review of MSPB cases does not show that NTEU has much experience yet with security clearance terminations.

Beyond access, military commands are top-down organizations, and unless a union represents everyone in a command, such as the Defense Logistics Command, the top leader can declare that there is a compelling need for one of its regulations making it non-negotiable. Stated more simply, it is easier to declare an internal regulation non-negotiable in DOD than outside DOD.

Third, a big chunk of DOD employees are “blue collar” folks, e.g., sheet metal workers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, machinists, heavy equipment operators, etc.  Not only does NTEU seem to have very few of those kind of workers in its units today, but those folks come with jurisdictional disputes over which occupation “owns” the work. That is a specialty area of internal union administration all by itself that the AFL-CIO set up an independent appeals board to deal with for its affiliated unions. Blue collar folks also force a national union to devote resources to annual local salary surveys to set their wages. NTEU can surely build the expertise to deal with these peculiarities of organizing in DOD, but it will take time and money.

Another unfortunate feature of organizing in DOD is that often a union is only one of many bargaining with the same base commander. For example, look at the title of 62 FLRA 272 (2010))

United States Department of the Navy, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Mid-Atlantic, Norfolk, Virginia (Activity/Petitioner) and International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, Local 4 (Exclusive Representative/Petitioner) and International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, Local 3 (Exclusive Representative) and Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO (Exclusive Representative) and International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, District Lodge 4 (Exclusive Representative) and American Federation of Government Employees, Locals 23, 53, 2635, 2024, 1156, 1659 & 1698, AFL-CIO (Exclusive Representatives) and National Association of Government Employees, Locals R1-178, R2-084, R1-100 & R1-134 (Exclusive Representatives) and Laborers International Union of North America, Local 1310 (Exclusive Representative)

Six unions and 15 different locals involved in one bargaining relationship at a single Naval station in Virginia. Any union just entering DOD is most unlikely to suddenly win an election of an entire command nationwide. It might be able to take away a local or two at a base like this to begin, but it would take decades to get all the rest.  The desperate need in DOD, with or without NTEU, is to consolidate all these fragmented units into one larger unit under one union, not to add another player. (However, if NTEU could be a catalyst to moving all those unions to merge into one that would be tremendous.)

NTEU’s strength has always been to organize everyone in an agency so that it has an exclusive relationship with the top agency leadership and no worry about one union being played against another by management. That will not be what it gets at DOD.

Fourth, today NTEU has a very politically united membership. Whereas AFGE often elects its national president by a majority of only three or four percentage points, NTEU’s two national officers generally win by 90% or more of the vote—if they are even challenged by anyone.  Politically, the union is led by the IRS employees with the DHS Customs and Border Protection group a very important swing group in any controversial vote. If NTEU ever gets lucky enough to get a large DOD unit, e.g., perhaps by negotiating a merge or affiliation of an existing DOD union, today’s near unanimous majority (and internal political pecking order) could destabilize overnight.

Fifth, from what we can see from comparing OPM reports on bargaining unit size to LM reports about number of actual dues paying members in certain units, NTEU has a lot of room for membership growth among the employees it already represents—and has had that growth potential throughout this century.  Just about every federal sector other than NATCA does.

(NTEU also represents only one-half of one agency in DHS, which has 15 agencies.  Some might say that NTEU resources would be better spent trying to increase that tenuous toe-hold in DHS before some White House Administration orders that the two parts of Customs and Border Protection be merged and NTEU has to fight AFGE and its National Council of Border Patrol Agents to keep just what it has now.)

Moreover, unlike NATCA NTEU also has lots of room for improvement in terms of building its Political Action fund clout.  From where we sit, union power is going to be far more dependent on how strong its political activities are than on one union being bigger than another. AFGE already is many times the size of NTEU and it is not claiming its members are immune from the threats also facing NTEU members. Total union size will only matter after unions maximize the potential political strength of its current members.  Working on anything else only will distract from what might be a survival mission.


We are going to stop here with only five reasons against NTEU moving into DOD to match the five reasons to do so. While we have our own bottom line opinion, there is no reason to unfairly bias the coming debate over the National President’s power to put NTEU inside DOD.  Good luck NTEU delegates. This just might be the most significant Constitutional Amendment you have addressed in decades. (We should mention that the proposed amendment would bar NTEU from entering DOD until some future convention changed the Constitution again.  It will need 2/3s of the votes to pass.)



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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