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Unions Compete to Represent Homeland Security Employees

By Stephen Barr
Friday, June 23, 2006

The union election is one of the largest ever conducted inside the government. The winner gets a larger voice on high-profile issues, such as terrorism and immigration, and could pick up thousands of new dues-paying members.

Two of the biggest federal unions, which often act as allies, have been campaigning against each other for months for the right to negotiate on behalf of employees at Customs and Border Protection, a front-line bureau in the Department of Homeland Security.

About 25,000 ballots were mailed or delivered to CBP employees last month, and yesterday was the deadline for casting votes. The Federal Labor Relation Authority, an independent agency that is overseeing the election, will start counting ballots today and continue counting next week. Jill M. Crumpacker , the FLRA executive director, said officials hope the vote count can be completed by Wednesday night.

The election is a byproduct of the merger three years ago that consolidated 22 federal agencies into Homeland Security. Many of those agencies had union representation, including the major elements that became CPB -- the U.S. Customs Services, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and a part of the Agricultural Plant Health and Inspection Service.

In 2004, the department filed a petition at the FLRA that set up the election -- a showdown between the American Federation of Government Employees, which represented immigration employees, and the National Treasury Employees Union, which represented customs employees.

John Gage , president of the AFGE, called the election "a heavyweight fight" and said there is no way to predict which union will win. Colleen M. Kelley , president of the NTEU, said voter turnout could be pivotal in deciding the winner.

The CBP's petition calling for the election contended that the Homeland Security merger had raised a series of union jurisdiction issues. Officials at the FLRA essentially agreed, noting that the merger had recast many of the "legacy" employees into a new occupational grouping -- CBP officers -- and placed them in a single chain of command at the ports of entry. The officers also had been consolidated under a single pay system for purposes of determining overtime and other pay supplements, the FLRA found.

A third union folded into the CBP, the National Association of Agriculture Employees, filed a motion in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit seeking to delay the election. But the court declined to act, and the underlying issue of whether agricultural specialists need their own bargaining unit will be heard by the court after the election, the FLRA said.

After ballots are counted, the FLRA regional director for Washington will issue a tally. Objections to the election must be filed within five working days from the date of the tally, Crumpacker said.

As part of the count, the FLRA may have to decide how many "challenged ballots" will be considered valid. Those ballots went to about 4,800 CBP employees who may be ineligible because they are supervisors or because of other questions about their job status on Feb. 3, a payroll date used to draw up a list of qualified voters.

The AFGE and the NTEU have run spirited campaigns for much of the last year, with Gage and Kelley traveling around the country to reach out to CBP employees. The unions are running on their records and highlighting efforts on behalf of employees in such areas as overtime, grade levels and workplace rules.

Gage said he emphasized to CBP employees that the AFGE represents employees in other parts of Homeland Security, such as Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "We think it is better when there is one voice for employees," he said.

The AFGE operates through councils, which operate independently of the union headquarters and pay attention to local issues, creating "a robust democracy," Gage said.

Kelley said the NTEU has worked hard to establish relationships and to communicate with CBP employees. NTEU local chapters understand the workplace concerns of employees, she said.

"Our record, visibility and effectiveness is what employees see and that is what they want," Kelley said.

Talk Shows

J. Ward Morrow , assistant general counsel at the American Federation for Government Employees, will be the guest on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. today on Federalnewsradio.com and WFED radio (1050 AM).

Judy Davis , head of procurement at the Environmental Protection Agency, will be the guest on "The IBM Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. Saturday on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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