At the GAO, a Union First

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Its original boss was Congress. Now the Government Accountability Office has a second group of people to whom it must be accountable -- union members.

For the first time, GAO has reached a tentative collective-bargaining agreement with its employees. About 1,800 analysts are in the bargaining unit of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

Unlike most unions in the federal workplace, the union can negotiate pay. The GAO and the union reached an agreement on pay in February, but that was a limited deal that did not cover other conditions of employment, including such things as arbitration measures and dues withholding procedures. Those are included in the tentative collective-bargaining agreement reached on Friday.

The agreement at GAO is an example of how organized labor in the federal government has grown during the Bush years, even while union membership in the country generally has declined. The National Treasury Employee Union says its membership rose almost 9 percent during that period and the American Federation of Government Employees boasts a 15 percent increase since President Bush took office.

"They are joining in large numbers," said Brian J. DeWyngaert of the American Federation of Government Employees. "The momentum there is growing."

He cited improved union communication and recruiting, plus the Bush administration's efforts to replace the General Schedule classification system with a pay-for-performance operation that many employees simply don't trust.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union agreed. "This administration's anti-employee policies inspired many employees who had not joined the union in the past to sign on," she said, "and those who were members became even more active."

The issue of pay -- particularly how it was determined -- was a key element in pushing GAO employees to form a union, according to both management and union officials. But it wouldn't be right to blame that on Bush.

It was a Clinton administration appointee, former GAO head David M. Walker, who so upset employees with his changes to the agency's pay-for-performance system that House and Senate federal workforce committees held a rare joint hearing on the issue last year.

As a result of changes Walker made, some employees did not get a raise in part because they were deemed overpaid when compared to private-sector workers. Legislation enacted last month provided raises and a lump-sum payment to GAO workers, along with providing a "floor guarantee" to those whose performance at least "meets expectations."

"That was the primary pain point," said Ronald La due Lake, chairman of the union's interim council.

For Gene L. Dodaro, the acting comptroller general, the experience under Walker sent a message.

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