Small agency conducts big election

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 10:25 PM

The final stretch of a major union organizing contest is about to begin.

It's high drama, not only for the two largest federal employee unions, but also for the small, and once belittled, federal agency that will share the spotlight with them.

The labor organizations are battling each other to win the loyalty of 50,000 transportation security officers.

On Friday, union leaders expect the Federal Labor Relations Authority to formalize details of an election, including when it will be held and how votes will be collected, that will allow the officers to choose between the the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union.

The authority is a tiny agency, just 134 employees. Yet its role in what is the largest-ever labor organizing effort among federal employees gives the department an opportunity to punch well above its weight.

Not long ago, no one would consider the FLRA to be anything close to mighty. It was a forgotten, neglected, demoralized place that got little respect. The administration of George W. Bush underfunded it, and like any organism deprived of nutrition, FLRA shriveled up. It was stagnant. It couldn't meet its mission.

That mission includes resolving unfair labor practice complaints within the federal sector and dealing with union representation questions. But when Thomas Beck joined the authority in October 2008, he found an agency that did little.

"The people we were suppose to serve weren't sure what the FLRA, if anything, was doing," said Beck, a Republican who once was chairman of the authority. He became a regular member after President Obama's Democratic administration took office.

Before Beck was appointed, the FLRA had gone for months with only one of its three seats filled. The general counsel's position was empty, meaning unfair labor practice cases weren't being prosecuted. Staffing levels had fallen, as had its budget and morale. About 400 cases were in the backlog.

Things were bad.

But not now.

Beck said the agency has produced a huge leap in productivity, from 52 decisions issued in fiscal 2007 to 222 last year, a jump that far outpaced the agency's increase in budget and staffing.

"We have made, I think, tremendous strides," he said. "We're getting a lot more of the work done that [agencies and unions] need us to do."

There's also evidence that the agency is doing what needs to be done for its employees. It was named the most improved agency in last year's Partnership for Public Service list of Best Places to Work in the Federal Government. Its 2010 rating was 3.5 times greater than the previous year's.

"The agency's extraordinary improvement reflects the fact that the FLRA has taken substantial and concrete steps to address the serious human capital and employee morale issues that developed over many years at the agency," said FLRA Chairman Carol Waller Pope when the ratings were released in September.

With an improved reputation in its quiver, the FLRA is taking on the task of organizing the election for transportation security officers - the baggage screeners - to choose between the two unions. Union officials expect the vote to be held online and by telephone, perhaps by the end of March.

In terms of bargaining unit size, this is one of the largest organizing efforts ever among all sectors and the largest currently, according to Elizabeth Bunn, the AFL-CIO's organizing director. It's also an indication of the growing influence public employee unions have.

In 2009, "more public-sector employees [7.9 million] belonged to a union than did private-sector employees [7.4 million], despite there being five times more wage and salary workers in the private sector," the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January 2010.

But unlike others represented by unions, the security officers would not have the right to collective bargaining even after they select a union. At least that's the situation now.

Unions and some Democratic members of Congress have pushed Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole to grant collective bargaining rights to the baggage screeners. An announcement might be close. Pistole has made his decision, and it is being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget, according to government and union sources.

Union leaders want that decision announced soon - like now - so it will be clear to workers that their vote will be for a union that has the power to bargain for them.

How well that election goes also will be a vote of confidence, or not, for the FLRA.

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