Federal Labor Relations Authority at a Crossroads

Federal Labor Relations Authority Chairman Thomas Beck, a Republican, has been on the job since October.
Federal Labor Relations Authority Chairman Thomas Beck, a Republican, has been on the job since October. (Federal Labor Relations Authority)
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By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Thomas Beck runs a tiny agency, but he has a huge job.

As the new chairman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority, Beck's task is to reinvigorate an organization that had become almost useless.

The authority's mission is to resolve complaints of unfair labor practices within the federal government. It decides issues involving federal union representation and settles stalemates between those unions and government agencies.

At least that's what it was supposed to do.

When Beck was sworn in as chairman in October, he found an agency with a backlog of some 400 cases. Until he took office, only one of three seats on the authority was filled, rendering it impotent for months. The agency has operated without a general counsel since March, which means the agency cannot prosecute unfair-labor-practices cases.

"It's clear to me that among many interested parties outside of the agency, they felt like not much was getting done," Beck said. "The parties that we serve, the federal agencies and the labor unions . . . they weren't sure exactly what was happening here at the FLRA."

Staffers had differing views on the authority's effectiveness, he said. Yet, as a group, they rated it dead last among small agencies in the 2007 "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" rankings published by the Partnership for Public Service.

Morale was in the tank.

"We were led by people not interested in our mission or sustaining our program," complained Lisa Vandenberg, president of the Union of Authority Employees, the FLRA labor organization.

The backlog of cases grew as staffing levels dropped. Since 2003, the number of employees fell by 35 percent, to 120. The agency's budget declined 19 percent, to $22.7 million, during that period.

"At every level, our effectiveness was compromised by staffing issues," said Carol Waller Pope, the authority's other member.

Curiously, the previous management did not spend all the money it was appropriated, according to Beck. Between $1 million and $1.5 million of agency funding was returned to the Treasury each year since fiscal 2003, until last year.

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