Federal Labor Relations Authority At a Crossroads

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.

Being a good Republican, "I'm a big fan of being lean and efficient" he said, "but I would not want to be any more lean right now."

He's trying to get some of that money back and said he has no idea why previous officials, who could not be reached for this column, didn't spend it.

As a result, "now there are very, very serious backlogs," Vandenberg said. "The federal service labor and management community is supposed to receive certain services from the FLRA . . . and they haven't been receiving those from us for a long period of time."

Beck is trying to change that. To reduce the backlog, he said, he and Pope "have been working to identify cases where we can reach agreement as to the ultimate disposition, even if we sometimes disagree about why that disposition is the correct one."

That has resulted, he added, in 21 decisions from Oct. 16 to Dec. 31, "the greatest number of decisions issued in any quarter since the third quarter of 2006."

He's also hiring. One additional lawyer for the case-processing staff has been added, and three more should come on board soon. That would represent a 36 percent increase. Beck also recruited a human resources specialist. Previously the entire HR function was contracted out.

For current staffers, Beck wants them to know they are appreciated. Last month, he honored employees for long or exceptional service, the first time the agency had an awards program in several years. He's also planning a 30th anniversary celebration for the agency this year.

"Now we're in a position where the agency is starting to move forward again," Vandenberg said. "The employees are really looking forward to this after a long period when we haven't been able to be very effective in carrying out our mission."

But despite his efforts during his brief tenure, Beck's remaining days as chairman could be numbered. President-elect Barack Obama might want to put a Democrat in the top spot. The National Treasury Employees Union has urged Obama to appoint Pope, a Democrat, to the chair.

Pope was a staff attorney for 20 years, until she was appointed as an authority member in 2000.

Colleen M. Kelley, the Treasury employees union president, expressed no beef with Beck, but she said Pope has a good history and track record and has "consistently demonstrated an understanding of federal labor law."

Beck gave up a lucrative career as a labor and employment law attorney, representing management clients, to join the government. But would he want to remain as a member of the authority if Obama appoints someone else as chair?

"I think I would," he said after a pause and with somewhat more candor than is often heard in this town. "I didn't come here to leave right away. . . . If President Obama sees fit to designate someone else as the chairman, I would still really enjoy deciding cases."

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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