OUR APOLOGIES TO THE DVA RNS
A few weeks ago we posted a piece entitled, “Why VA Nurses Should Study Wall Street.” It reviewed the advantages for employees working for the same nationwide employer to be represented by one union rather than many. Unfortunately, that is too often the case today and it is hurting unions’ bargaining power. Although our core example dealt with the Registered Nurses of the Department of Veteran Affairs, we in no way meant to attack their current situation or unions. They made that choice and, frankly, the current approach has some advantages too.
But our core argument is still a solid one and we hope everyone got it despite the apparently distracting references to RNs. So, let’s choose another agency whose employees are represented by multiple unions, namely, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA). Today, virtually all EPA employees are represented by AFGE or NTEU. While it is good that so many of them are union represented, it would be better if one union spoke for everyone employed at EPA.
The principle benefit would be that management would no longer be able to declare a bargaining proposal from one union to be nonnegotiable because it would have an effect on the employees represented by the other union. FLRA has made it very clear under its “vitally affects” doctrine that a union proposal generally is nonnegotiable if it sets working conditions for employees in any other unit. Consequently, if AFGE and NTEU employees worked in the same EPA building, it is very likely that neither could bargain over how to assign spaces in any common parking lot, how to assign office space in shared areas of the building, where to post vacancy announcements, procedures for reassigning between positions in different units—even though the jobs may be just across the hall from one another, how to distribute the agency’s awards budget, RIF procedures, cafeteria and break room services, promotion ranking criteria, etc.
Almost as large a benefit for the employees if they organize under one union is that management will have fewer excuses at the bargaining table to oppose a union demand for a change. With the workforce of this single employer split between two unions, the agency can oppose one union’s demand by saying that adopting it will harm or even anger the other union. Stated differently, the agency might say that it is willing to agree to a negotiated rule, but it needs the same rule for everyone. That puts one union under pressure to accept what the other union already has.
A third significant benefit is that by organizing everyone into one unit with one union the union leaders will be in a position to know what is going on everywhere in the agency. One union leadership group will know all the practices that have developed, all the grievances that have been filed and their semi-secret settlements, all the MOUs that have been signed, all the arbitration precedents, etc. The union would finally have just as much information as management has.
A fourth benefit, but far from the last, is the quality of the union’s leadership. Good leadership is a scare resource in any organization. If all employees were in one unit, they would be able to choose from a wider pool of potential leaders than they can today.
The DVA nurses would reap another benefit that the EPA employees cannot. RNs have the right to form bargaining units of just RNs. If all the DVA RNs were in a single unit, they would be the largest bargaining unit of nurses in the county, which would give them considerable clout in the media, on the Hill, and in the medical profession. In contrast, today a Congressional representative cannot afford to give one union of VA nurses too much attention because potentially that might alienate the other RN unions in the VA. As we pointed out in our previous posting on this topic, most professional athletes’ unions limit membership to the players of a single sport rather than to all the employers of the sport franchise. They do it because it maximizes their clout.
Sadly, it is very hard to even move in the direction of organizing into one union in a single bargaining unit. The AFL-CIO prohibits their unions from trying to take members of another union away. Unions not affiliated with the AFL-CIO do not work under that restriction. The FLRA limits the times during which employees can even vote to join another union, and there is very little incentive for the leaders of one union to give away members. But just because it is hard to do does not mean it is the wrong thing to do. The saying, “No pain, no gain” seems to fit nicely here. But if you never heard of the Montrose election strategy, check it out in the following case because it offers a simple way to change union affiliations: NAGE, 25 FLRA 728 (1987)
So, we ask that the DVA RNs accept our apologies; the EPA folks too if this offended them. No criticism was intended of what they have today. We were just trying to describe options and their advantages.