The key question at stake is whether the line judges are supervisors or managers who would thus be prohibited from unionizing under the District’s employment law. The agency has argued that they are essentially managerial, directing the activities of paralegals, clerks and other agency support staff. But judges said they are not — the staffers do not report to them directly, they said, but are supervised by the chief judge and shared among all the judges.
Administrative law judges, who handle a variety of disputes involving government agencies, have unionized in other places. More than 1,400 federal administrative law judges handling immigration, Social Security and Health and Human Services matters are members of IFPTE-affiliated associations, and judges in at least five states also have organized. Many District lawyers — who, like the judges, share legal support staff — have long been unionized.
The Office of Administrative Hearings employs 29 judges, including Walker, a deputy chief, and five “principal” judges. Shearon said about three-fourths of the line judges have signed organizing cards; to hold an election, 30 percent is necessary, with a simple majority necessary to have the union recognized.
The organizers said the effort is less about salaries and benefits — line judges make $135,900 plus fringe benefits worth about $25,000 yearly, with pay and tenure governed by city law — and more about having a more formal way to address the workplace matters laid out in the June letter, including performance evaluations, transparency and workload.
The matter is set to go to mediation in late April, but the organizers believe the judges have a right to bargain collectively and have thus far resisted participating.
The dispute is being closely watched by labor leaders in the city, who are concerned that if Walker prevails, other city agencies with similar independent status might break with the mayor to separately negotiate employment matters.
“It would set a very bad precedent,” said Joslyn N. Williams, president of the Metro Washington Council AFL-CIO. “It’s an invitation for other so-called quasi-independent organizations to say they are not covered by the same rules that the rest of the agencies are covered by.”
But Williams, a political supporter of Gray’s, said he did not think the contentious process reflected bad faith on the mayor’s part. “I can understand their anxiety and frustration,” he said of the judges. “But I have been around long enough. I know how long these things can take.”