SHOULD RETIREES SERVE ON UNION EXECUTIVE BOARDS?
Here is a provision from the current Constitution of a federal employee union we hold in high regard: “A National and Regional officer who retires from the Federal government before their term of office expires may complete that term at the pleasure of the National Council. National and Regional officers who resign from the Federal government before their term expires shall relinquish such office, effective with their resignation.” For purposes of this post we are going to side with the National Weather Service Employees Organizations (NWSEO) and argue that retirees should not be permitted to serve on either a national or regional executive board.
Before we get into the arguments why, let’s focus on an example outside union administration, namely, the board of a condo association. A residential condo typically has a full-time building manager who takes care of day-to-day matters. It also normally has a board that meets quarterly to review what has happened and deal with what is soon to happen. It also generally has an annual tenants’ meeting where the rules or bylaws of the condo are open to revision and the tenure of the building manager is either extended or ended. Given that structure which closely resembles that of most unions why would it ever make sense to allow former tenants to sit on the condo board? They no longer come into the building day to day, they do not directly experience the building manager’s service, and the decisions they make do not impact them?
Sure, the former tenants may like being on the board. It could give them a chance to return to the “old homestead” for a few days a year, see some old friends, and maybe get a trip or two paid for, e.g., to attend the building’s big 4th of July bash. The building management would likely prefer it as well because it gives the management more options for filling board seats. That might help it steer around some undesirable current tenants or just benefit from a proven sympathizer on the board. But the critical factor should be how their presence in one or potentially all of the board seats makes the condo a better place to live—or simply makes the building management more responsive to the tenants’ needs.
With that non-union benchmark in mind, let’s turn to the reasons why unions should follow NWSEO’s example and limit national and regional board seats to active federal employees?
First, the people most concerned with and knowledgeable about the effectiveness of a national union’s leadership are the local union presidents. The national union’s effectiveness often plays a large role in their reelections efforts or whether they can even be effective locally. They hear daily from actual members about what is good and bad about the union, and they are the ones who have an understanding of how the union’s national politics work. In contrast, retirees (or former employees) rarely visit the workplace or talk with current employees, stay current on work process changes, or stay involved in local union administration.
Second, an executive board is intended to be a governing body, not an advisory committee, retiree transition service, or something even less. As the NWSEO Constitution states, “The National Council shall serve as the governing body of the NWSEO when the National Convention is not in session.” Executive boards are to make the union’s significant decisions that need not be made immediately or that have little to no impact on strategic policy, goals, etc. Boards should engage in a detailed analysis of a union’s annual budget as opposed to a drive-by glimpse, set and adjust strategic plans, identify near and long term goals, assess progress against established metrics, etc. That is one reason why the law has imposed strict requirements on election to a union board. When retirees take seats that local officers could hold it breaks the governance chain. Normally, local union officers are the voters at periodic national conventions that elect the National President and other top officers as well as set policy through Constitutional and bylaw modifications. Consequently, why exclude them from the board process of interim governance, which as noted above “serves as the governing body when the national convention is not in session.” (Some unions even prohibit local officers from simultaneously sitting on the national executive board. That is a practice that we believe the Dept. of Labor should examine. It amounts to penalizing someone for holding union office without good reason. Aside from the legal implications it impedes the ability of local officers to develop national leadership experience. That is great for protecting an elected incumbent, but not so good for a union’s national succession planning.)
By a stroke of writers’ luck, the Bush family has given us a brand new example of the disadvantages of having board members only remotely involved in day-to-day affairs. It seems that Jeb accepted an invitation to join a corporate board and consult after he left the governorship. But with other things on his mind, he apparently did less than a stellar job on behalf of the stockholders. The company went bankrupt, the CEO went to jail for fraud and the Bush family has had to pay back about $470,000 in fees Jeb collected to pay the corporate creditors. Not good for the CEO, company, creditors or Jeb.
Third, this is a small thing to us, but perhaps not to others. Some union Constitutions do not even ask retirees to pay a full share of the dues. If the union caps retiree dues far below those of active unit members, out of recognition that retirees no longer are getting the same value back that active bargaining unit members are, isn’t that an admission of sorts that retirees should not be on the Board? (In fact, we wonder whether it is even reasonable under the law to permit members paying only a fraction of the dues others do to be on the board.)
We are not saying that unions and retirees have no need for one another. Unions should focus on the benefits of employees’ ultimate retirement and take steps, when needed, to protect them. But it seems to us that retirees need an organizations focused solely on their needs. We have often wondered why a federal employee union does not strike a deal with the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association that would give retirees dual membership in both the union they spent decades in and the NARFEA. (NARFEA dues appear to be only about $50 a year, which could easily be paid out of any national union’s dues.) There is an untapped alliance there that could help retirees, NARFEA and unions.
Unions can also benefit from retirees who perform tasks that the Hatch Act prohibits active employees from doing. In fact, if we were running a union we would have an active program to keep retirees involved in the union. But none of that justifies allowing them to potentially fill most or every board seat or barring the most competitive candidates from running. Perhaps the best model would be to establish a board seat just for retirees or to give them non-voting participation rights in board discussions, similar to the role the District of Columbia representatives have been given by Congress.
We apologize early if we have offended retirees. This is NOT intended as an attack on their personal competency or commitment. We proudly admit that we have retirees sitting around the FEDSMILL editorial table—and do not even get us started on how many of our best friends are retirees. However, unions are there not just to help active employees of a particular employer, but to be largely run by them. Unions are about involving employees in decisions that impact their work life. Given how difficult the federal employees’ employment environment is today, we believe, like NWSEO, that the people sitting around the board table making key decisions should be those with the most at stake, who feel deeply the urgency of solving a problem like furloughs, the loss of telework, or cuts in compensation.
This is the first in a series of posts we plan to issue between now and the summer addressing union leadership and structure. Our intent is to help those who are trying to update union constitutions that may have made sense at one time, but no longer do. For example, if the core of union’s constitution was adopted decades ago, maybe even before federal employees had collective bargaining rights or knew anything about running a union, are those the best rules today when unions have many representational rights, lots of talented local leaders, tens of millions in national treasuries, and perhaps represent a far different group of employees than they did when the current constitution was written? Or if a decades-old constitution was designed to create a single powerful national president primarily to deal with warring local or regional factions splitting the union and draining its resources, is the single, all-powerful leader model appropriate today when the challenges unions face are completely unrelated to the union’s formative struggles? Typically, as organizations mature their challenges become more complex, demanding the most current and considered information and insight to set and monitor policy as well as robust internal debate to identify the best course of action. That does not mean a weak national presidency; just the opposite. Union’s need national leaders who value involvement and can manage the input and insight of hundreds of stakeholders.
Finally, we recognize there are other perspectives on this and that we have not addresses all the details, e.g., should a current local officer who is also a retiree be allowed on a national board. If you wish to share other or contrary ideas, please send in a comment and we will post the less obscene ones.