NTEU’s next president will face big challenges in a harsh landscape

Joe Davidson
Columnist August 8, 2011

This is the situation as the National Treasury Employees Union picks its next president: Big federal budget cuts are a certainty, an unfavorable majority runs the House and the sting of a major defeat is painfully fresh.

No matter who wins, the victor has a losing hand.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Colleen M. Kelley, the incumbent, and Eddie Walker, the contender, apparently crave a challenge. Kelley is seeking her fourth four-year term, and Walker is trying for a second time to unseat her. The results should be known Tuesday evening after voting by delegates to the NTEU convention in Seattle.

The next NTEU president will be in office during times that are harsher for federal employees than they have been in many years. “I actually think federal unions are more relevant now than ever,” Kelley said. “I think there are a lot of things we can do to take our story to the public, as well as members of Congress, about federal agencies, the missions they deliver on . . . to make sure they get the resources to fulfill those missions . . . and bring that story home to them about the real impact, the positive impact that federal employees and federal agencies have on the public every day.”

“It is a time to stand stronger than ever.”

Walker, who has been president of an NTEU chapter in Austin for five terms, tells members on his Web site, “This is the time . . . to choose a future that explodes with possibilities . . . that takes the best from our collective past and experience, and builds a strong, fighting force for the betterment of our members — and yet offers a strong vision of what unions can do for the benefit of the rest of the nation.”

The future for federal employees will explode with possibilities, all right: possibilities of furloughs, additional pay freezes and smaller benefits. The unbalanced deal the White House made to raise the debt ceiling, a deal that cuts spending but raises no new money, will put the pinch even more on federal workers.

Even before the onerous debt-ceiling deal, there were proposals — from House Republicans and others — to extend the freeze another year or two or three, cut wages by making employees take two weeks’ leave without pay, reduce federal retirement benefits and make workers pay more for them.

“As difficult as these times are, and they are, what we also know is, we have seen many administrations and many members of Congress come and go,” Kelley said. “And we were here long before they were, and we will be here long after they are gone. And we have been and will continue to be relentless in our defense of the federal worker and what they do every day.”

She cites her “background, experience, respect” and a long list of accomplishments. They include record membership numbers, efforts to organize Customs and Border Protection officers and successful efforts to eliminate the IRS’s use of private tax collectors and to keep IRS and Food and Drug Administration facilities open.

“I’m very, very proud of what we’ve accomplished, and I stand on my record,” she said.

In Walker’s view, the issues facing federal employees mean “NTEU is in vital need of energetic, fresh leadership that can effectively represent all its membership. NTEU deserves to be more of a player on the national scene.”

“I firmly believe that our union’s potential for political activism has not been fully tapped,” he said. “I will revamp our legislative program to make it more productive, and in order to strengthen our legislative influence, I will personally campaign among members to increase [political action committee] participation.”

While the future for federal employees is uncertain, the immediate past for NTEU members is disheartening. The loss in June to the American Federation of Government Employees to represent transportation security officers was a huge buzzkill. The contest was the biggest federal labor organization campaign ever.

“It was a union-wide initiative. This was not something that involved only me,” Kelley said. “Obviously, we are very disappointed that we lost the election.”

It didn’t have to be that way, said Walker.

“I think it’s a major issue because there were so many missteps made along the way,” he said in an interview. “If you’re going to take on that kind of fight, you got to be ready to do it right . . . . We did not do that. We went down the wrong road.”

An item on his Web site indicates the wrong road included “a top-down bias by our national staff which failed to respect and utilize the input and the experience” of NTEU Transportation Security Administration chapter leaders.

“Top-down” is a term Walker uses often to describe his main critique of Kelley’s centralized leadership style. “You have to listen to people,” he said. “You cannot have top-down leadership. It doesn’t work in federal agencies, and it doesn’t work in a union.”

On losing the security officers’ vote, Walker wrote that Kelley’s “organizing plan concentrated on large airports and put off the fight for more modest-sized bargaining units, in the process ignoring the suffering of representation-hungry employees at smaller workplaces. That approach gave ammunition to our competitors, allowing a myth to arise, that NTEU was just in it to win it for the benefit of the organization, not for the employees.”

Walker said Kelley diverted 40 percent of NTEU’s field-office resources to the losing campaign, which left some union activities, such as processing grievances, lacking. To make up for that, he would rebate a portion of annual dues back to chapters to help build them and “to say thank you for the sacrifices” during the TSA campaign.

Regarding those sacrifices, Kelley said: “Everyone understood from the beginning that if we were in this campaign, we were in it to win it. That meant we were going to do whatever we needed to do.” It was very important to use field-office staff to develop NTEU support among the security officers, she added, “and the chapter leaders agreed with that.”

Of course, everyone probably would still agree with that had NTEU won. But it didn’t.

Now Walker is counting on that loss to help fuel his victory.

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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