Among the things you notice over a 40-year career working with unions is that not all national union reps are the same. In fact, they can differ greatly in how they approach the job, and that can have a major impact on how the locals they work with grow—or not. There is not much a local can do about the rep assigned to work with it given that national or regional elected officials usually have total control over staff assignments. But it should help to know what the differences or range of differences are. Consequently, we are going to describe and dissect two types of reps who are polar opposites of one another, occupying different ends of a spectrum.

The “Type A” Union Rep

Our Type A label stands for the rep who is primarily an Advocate for the employees and the local. It has nothing to do with the Type A versus Type B personality concept.  This rep’s predisposition is to get behind just about any kind of employee gripe brought to him or her no matter how skimpy the evidence is initially and work for a solution.

For example, a Type A rep’s response to a local union president asking about what to do on behalf of a member who thinks he was screwed over in a promotion action would be to “file a grievance and let’s see what develops.”  The Type A rep knows that when a member approaches the union with a gripe the last thing s/he wants is for the union to make a snap, evidence-lite judgement about the situation just like s/he thinks the supervisor did. The member is not looking for a judge at that point to rule on the issue, but for someone to be on his/her side as an advocate.

The Type A rep also knows that a lot of things can happen once a gripe becomes a grievance, other kind of complaint, or bargaining demand. Forcing an agency to disclose documents can often reveal as many surprises as a child’s Christmas morning. I will never forget the EEO complaint where I was representing an employee who felt she should have been selected over the very well-qualified selectee, who was also a good friend of mine and local union president. It looked in the beginning like one of those cases where the agency would win because under law the benefit of the doubt in any “close call” promotion case goes to the agency. Unions need a very smokey gun to win non-selection cases and for the longest time we could not find even a stone-cold cap pistol.  But then the selecting official gave an affidavit writing that the grievant was not selected this time even though she, “…was the best qualified person among the applicants, but that she had not had her babies yet.”  In other words, he passed over her because he did not want to put her in a high salary job only to have to put up with a year or more of LWOP while she procreated. CA-CHING. Retroactive promotion, back pay, interest, and six months of approved maternity leave because by the time this evidenced surfaced she was very pregnant.

We could just as easily described the case where the selecting official kept defending his selection of a marginal candidate off the Best Qualified list over the EEO complainant on the grounds she was a much superior writer based on an award she had received for her writing. When we finally got him under oath and forced him to point to this writing award we had heard often about–but were unable to find in any agency award records, he pointed to her SF-171.  It showed she had indeed received an award for her writing skills—but in the second grade. That produced another big CA-CHING for the employee and union that would not have happened if the union had made the decision to take or drop this case based on the evidence it had when the employee came asking for help or even when it was time to send the dispute to a hearing.

Another aspect of a Type A for Advocate union rep personality is a willingness to try something that may not have been tried before. For example, suppose management suddenly started assigning employees to work different hours each day of the work week. Perhaps it requires them to report at 8 a.m. on Monday and Thursday, 7 a.m. on Wednesday and Friday and at 10 on Tuesday. A Type A Advocate rep would dig deeper than the contract language into the regs and law to make sure there was nothing there to help deal with the problem. Moreover, let’s assume s/he found the following statutory passage from 5 USC 6101(a):

Except when the head of an Executive agency,…determines that his organization would be seriously handicapped in carrying out its functions or that costs would be substantially increased, he shall provide, with respect to each employee in his organization, that…the working hours in each day in the basic workweek are the same….

The Type A rep would assume that even though there is virtually no case law explaining how the employer has to justify its determination, this is a good enough factual situation to try to set a good precedent. The Type A rep would assume that whatever determination the agency had made, if it made any, could be attacked as legally deficient. The risk of losing is rarely a factor for a Type A rep.

A third attribute you will find in the Type A union rep is a predisposition to look beyond what the contract and grievance procedure offer for other ways to help the employee.  That is why at we often write about alleging a statutory/regulatory EEO violation (or a ULP) along with a contract violation allegation. The same goes for looking through agency, department, and OPM issuances to find a possible basis for relief.

Similarly, the Type A rep thinks in terms of not just whether the case can be won now, but how it might help the union in future negotiations. Union negotiators have often used term or mid-term negotiations to reach back to resolve a grievance as part of striking a deal on the new contract. The same can be said for pursuing a case if only to get the facts of the dispute before higher level officials in the agency to expose the first line supervisor there or in a union all-employee publication or even a Congressional complaint.

Finally, the Type A union rep does not wait for employees to bring problems to the union or expect them to even know of all the injustices happening around them. Consequently, s/he leads the local or locals through a process of regularly requesting data that might expose problems.  For example, asking the agency to lay out its performance award data by race, national origin, gender, age, etc., as well as other variables not related to civil rights classifications can, and often has, revealed long-term disparate treatment of classes of employees. In short, the Type A rep encourages the local to go looking for problems.

The “Type J” Union Rep

Here the J stands for Judgmental, meaning that this kind of rep does not think of himself primarily as the employees’ advocate, but as some kind of roving Judge Roy Bean justice of the peace whose first obligation is to make judgements on what the local union brings him. If the facts are not there to strongly support an ultimate victory for the rep, s/he discourages the union from doing any more with it. To put it bluntly, all too often this type rep is thinking more about his win-lose record than that he is the employee’s last hope of support or help.

Additionally, the Type J rarely takes risks if there is a potential that s/he might look foolish or Pollyanna in front of colleagues by pursuing something that has not been tried yet. S/he lives in fear of a colleague saying, “Where do you come up with these ideas?” as if novel attempts to solve problems or just improve some employee’s situation is a bad thing.

By now you have guessed that the best description of a Type J is the opposite of a Type A. So, added to the two attributes just listed would be the Type J’s habit of rarely, if ever, looking outside the terms of the negotiated agreement for provisions that might have been violated. Multi-dimensional litigation or problems solving is considered wasteful redundancy by the Type J rep.

Similarly, don’t hold your breath waiting for the Type J to help the local go looking for problems by auditing how OT is assigned, awards are distributed, discipline is imposed, sick leave restrictions are inflicted, etc.

Maybe the best way to sum up the difference is to point out that the Type J sees himself as someone who services the local’s legitimate needs—and he decides what is legitimate before getting all the facts and completing all the research.  In contrast, the Type A rep thinks of her role as building the image and role of the union, which includes not just indisputable victories, but also great efforts that might not produce immediate or even any victory. To borrow a Robert F. Kennedy adage, The Type J union rep sees things as they are and says why, whereas the Type J dreams of things that have not yet been accomplished and says why not.

While locals rarely have the clout to force a different kind of national or regional rep be assigned to help them, we hope this posting helps them at least recognize what they might be missing and begin a conversation to get more from their rep.

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. David says:

    I believe there are also A/J types, those are the risk takers, but not outright suicidal, those that advocate but don’t overly and blindly advocate, and also see things as they are and know why, but always look deeper where change can or should be made, and how.

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