Correction to This Article
The headline below has been changed to correctly reflect the acronym for the Customs and Border Protection bureau in the Department of Homeland Security.

Four-Year Feud Between CBP, NTEU Shows Sorry State of Problem-Solving

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A recent arbitration ruling sums up the stubborn state of labor-management relations at Customs and Border Protection, a bureau in the Department of Homeland Security, and perhaps at other places in the government.

Here's an excerpt from the decision by arbitrator Thomas Angelo in a case involving the National Treasury Employees Union:

"The agency operates from the view that it is doing nothing more than exercising its statutory rights to insure the mission of the agency is carried out to the fullest extent. NTEU views the agency as having gone over to the dark side and bridles at any suggestion that collective bargaining is detrimental to the operations of the CBP.

"This contest has been going on for four years and, even though it has enhanced the livelihood of third parties from coast to coast, it is worth noting at the outset that the parties really should devise a more productive way to deal with one another."

Angelo ruled in a case that is part of the ongoing dispute between CPB and the union over how the agency changes tours of duty and work shifts for officers. The case involved shift assignments at the International Bridge in Presidio, Tex.

NTEU complained that CBP had made a unilateral change in shift rotations, reducing the number of officers working from midnight to 8 a.m. The change led to a loss of night differential earnings for the affected officers, the union said.

The case involved questions about whether CBP must bargain at the local level with NTEU on assignment practices and whether CBP must notify the union of shift changes and provide an opportunity for negotiations at the national level.

In at least four NTEU cases that ended up before the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which rules in such disputes, CBP prevailed on the matter of local bargaining. FLRA believes the agency, in 2001, lawfully rescinded its agreement with NTEU to engage in local bargaining over changes in shift assignments. The union has filed petitions challenging that finding in federal courts.

But CPB apparently is on the hook to bargain at the national level with NTEU, according to the FLRA. In the Texas case, Angelo agreed and ordered CBP to provide back pay to the affected officers and to continue paying them until the two sides resolve their differences.

Lynn Hollinger , a public affairs spokeswoman at CBP, said the agency plans to appeal the Texas ruling to the FLRA. Angelo's decision, "if upheld, would seriously undercut and impede the agency's anti-terrorism and drug and weapon interdiction efforts," she said.

CBP did not respond to a request for an interview with an agency official to discuss its four-year-old feud with NTEU and the costs of litigation.

In his decision, Angelo pointed out that CBP has the right to change staffing levels and that such changes trigger a requirement to renegotiate contract provisions.

"Rather than give notice to NTEU -- at any level -- the agency opted to act unilaterally and produce its own version of a rotational policy. This was a garden variety unfair labor practice," Angelo wrote. "The fact the agency refused to even discuss the matter in the grievance procedure only spices the illegality of the action."

Union Leader Retires

Colleagues at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office say farewell today to Ronald J. Stern , who is retiring. Stern has served for the last 23 years as president of the Patent Office Professional Association. He joined the patent office 41 years ago and worked for 31 years as a primary patent examiner.

During his time as union president, a dozen or so patent commissioners have come and gone and the nature of PTO's work has changed dramatically. Stern has been a tireless advocate for patent employees, inside the agency and on Capitol Hill.

Four years ago, for example, Stern led a union effort, called the "pay for paper" deal, that won a substantial salary increase for patent examiners and other employees. Under the agreement, employees gave up paper documents and paper files and agreed to shift most of their work to computers and electronic storage systems.

Last Call for '05

The Diary is taking a holiday break, but you've got a chance to tell me what's on your mind at noon today during the regular weekly discussion of federal employee and retiree issues on Federal Diary Live at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ .

E-mail:barrs@washpost.com


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