Most federal sector unions have only two nationally elected officials constitutionally empowered to lead the union.  When one suddenly leaves office, the other immediately takes up the leadership slack. But, who is in charge if they both abruptly leave office?  Too often, no one. 

When we use the word “disappear” we do not mean to suggest that they vanish as part of some magic act or even alien-assisted teleportation.  We are talking about the more mundane, often sad, events that might lead to neither elected leader being able to serve, e.g., an accident when they are sharing taxi or even elevator cab, dual impeachments/indictments, terrible illnesses, etc.

Given the complexity of several federal sector unions, the president or CEO’s job is rarely one that can just be handed to a well-meaning, aspiring, up-and-coming local leader.   After all, unions such as AFGE and NTEU have multi-million dollar annual budgets, employ over 100 people, and represent hundreds of thousands of employees in dozens of federal agencies before courts, Congress, quasi-judicial proceedings, arbitration, and the media.  They have investments, real estate needs, staff pension funds, and substantial technology systems.   Most often, national leadership responsibilities are a far, far cry from running a single union local.  Even smaller unions such as NATCA and NFFE would be hurt by the lack of a legitimate national leader, even if he/she only serves while replacement elections are run.

FEDSMILL’s army of investigative researchers took a quick around at union Constitutions and found that there is a variety of procedures for transferring power, even temporarily, to someone to run the union in the event of an unexpected vacancy in both constitutionally established, nationally elected positions.  We have summarized them below starting with the most thorough processes to the high risk ones.

AFGE’s Constitution calls for the National Secretary-Treasurer (NST) to take over the Presidency if the elected president to unable to serve for any “valid” reason.  If the NST job is vacant, the National Executive Council (NEC) elects the replacement by a majority vote of the NEC members, not among its locals.  Like virtually every other union operating in the federal sector, there is no provision dealing with the two offices being vacant at the same time.  However, the Constitution does contain a clause which appears to give the NEC the power to appoint a subcommittee to perform any act which the NEC is authorized to undertake.  Given the many limits on the power of the AFGE National President, it appears that the NEC or its subcommittee could perform even the mundane daily duties of the national President.  Of course, confusion and conflict could easily arise in the NEC over the specific size, powers, and term of the subcommittee performing the chief executive’s functions.

NTEU’s Constitution outlines what might be the most democratic procedure.  If there is a vacancy in the National President position, the National Executive Vice President (NEVP) slides into the job and an election is held among its locals to pick the new NEVP.  If only the NEVP job is open, there is an election among the union’s locals to fill it.  However, if both are simultaneously unable to serve, there is no provision for anyone on the Executive Board or senior staff to exercise the authority of the National President.  Elections must be held within 60 days, but appeals could postpone filling the top job for months more.  Given that there is no provision empowering anyone to set the rules of the election, an appeal is very likely.

In the meantime, it is anyone’s guess as to who signs checks, hires and fires, addresses the media or Congress, makes binding representational decisions, resolves internal disputes, etc. No one on the union’s national Executive Board has that power according to the Constitution and just as with AFGE the Constitution does not designate the leader of the Board.  Consequently, decisions will need to be made by majority vote even in the interim—and that is rarely a good way to get through difficult times.

NATCA Constitution specifies that the National Executive Vice President replaces the National President should the latter’s position be vacant and outlines a process where the National President would appoint someone (any member in good standing) to a vacant National Executive VP position, subject to the approval of the National Executive Board.  Like NTEU’s, the NATCA Constitution does not address what happens if the two positions are vacant simultaneously, leaving the same opportunity for significant political confusions or chaos.  While NATCA has Regional Vice Presidents and a National Executive Board, neither appears to be clearly empowered to perform the duties of the missing officers.  Moreover, even once the new officers are chosen, they are not permitted to take office until 30 days after the election is certified.  So, who is in charge in the interim?

AFSCME’s Constitutionhas what appears to be the most complete, quick, and airtight succession provisions.  The International President (IP) has the power to appoint any member to fill the vacant term of the International Secretary-Treasurer (IST).  The IST, as the second in command in AFSCME’s structure, moves automatically into the IP job if it is vacant.   Moreover, the International Executive Board has the power to elect an IP if needed, which is certainly faster than NTEU’s process of holding full-scale elections.

These and other unions have a huge hole in their Constitutions that makes them liable for serious disruption should both nationally elected positions be vacant simultaneously.  As we said above, who has the power to sign checks, obligate the union, hire and fire, settle staff disputes, etc. in that situation.  While the executive board has a role, without a pre-designated leader of the Board to whom executive powers would transfer, there could be confusion and chaos.

Here is a solution FEDSMILL offers for thought to deal with simultaneous vacancies.  The Constitution should include a provision immediately transferring executive or leadership power to a single person. That could be the union’s General Counsel or a pre-specified member of the Executive Board.  It would even help to designate a line of succession moving through several people, just as the American Constitution specifies.  If there is concern about a staff member being in charge until replacement leaders are elected, the union can have him or her report regularly to a three-person subcommittee of the executive board who would have the power to overrule him/her by unanimous vote.

As for officially filling the slot on more than an interim basis, law permits the union to empower national executive board to elect someone to one or both national leadership positions or to call for a full-scale election among the local leaders or even members.

Unions have lots of options for how they plug this hole in their Constitutions, but as we see it they have no choice about whether they should plug the gap.


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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