The Securities and Exchange Commission is a federal agency replete with highly trained professionals such as lawyers, examiners, investigators and accountants. With 80 percent of its work force in the professional ranks, the agency is not exactly considered a hotbed of union organizing.
That may be the impression the outside world has of the agency, but inside the SEC there has been an active organizing effort by the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents employees of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Internal Revenue Service, among others. The union said it has the requisite number of signatures to petition the Federal Labor Relations Authority to hold an election, which is expected in about six weeks. The union must get a simple majority of votes cast to become the employees' official representative with management.
"We got the showing of interest in record time," said Jeff Friday, national counsel for the NTEU. "We have as strongly committed a group as I've ever seen."
Friday said the union was approached by a group of employees in 1998 and began meeting with small groups last January. The union needed the signatures of 600 of the workers who would be included in the bargaining unit in order to proceed with a vote.
Employees who work at SEC headquarters or in its regional offices would be eligible to be represented by the NTEU if the election is successful, Friday said. There are 1,768 SEC employees in Washington and 1,051 in the field. The New York office already has union representation.
One SEC employee familiar with the union's effort who did not want to be identified characterized the organizing drive as almost entirely homegrown, with support coming from throughout the agency. But some longtime SEC employees were mystified that the door was being opened to unionization because there has been a lively esprit de corps among SEC staff members, who carry a heavy workload and put in long hours.
"We are culturally like a law firm. We have some of the best government professionals anywhere. Maybe it's not smart to change this," said one high-ranking employee.
Agency officials said they realize that employees are being asked to work longer and harder. Attrition rates are very high in some divisions as SEC-seasoned employees are wooed away by law firms and private-sector companies offering handsome salaries. Meanwhile, the healthy economy, the advent of online trading and Internet brokers, and concerns about year 2000 computer compatibility have created a heavier workload, with more enforcement cases and more corporate filings.
"We're working harder, and it has an impact on morale," said a top staffer.
Discontented workers have told the NTEU that they are expected to work uncompensated extra hours, known as "donated" time. They also complain that bonus money is seldom given to career employees, who, in their view, are not rewarded for their hard work. "There is a common feeling that there is tons of overtime forced on people and that they promote people with no experience who are favored by the front office," said a union supporter. "All these things have led to a terrible morale problem."
SEC management said it is supportive of the organizing efforts and is addressing some of these concerns.
"I have always felt that the right of employees to organize unions is an important one. I have made sure that the commission has respected that right and cooperated in every way with the request of employees to meet and share information regarding organizing a union," SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt said in a statement.
Jayne Seidman, SEC associate executive director, added, "Effectively addressing the evolving family and workplace needs of SEC employees has been and will continue to be a priority of the commission's management."
A spokesman said the SEC is working on a commission-wide policy on benefits such as flex time, telecommuting and emergency day care. Currently, employees can work at home or arrange flexible hours, but a variety of criteria must be met and supervisors must approve the arrangement. Only one headquarters employee telecommutes; seven did last year.
The spokesman said many employees are on alternate work schedules. As for the awarding of bonuses, he said almost all the "retention" awards the SEC handed out to prevent staff from leaving went to career employees. Supervisors also have a discretionary pot of money to award other bonuses annually.
Friday said the NTEU could help on the pay front by trying to get some SEC professionals exempted from the federal pay scale, which would make their salaries comparable to those of higher-paid regulators working at places such as the FDIC. The union also would ask that bonuses be awarded based on performance.
Union boosters said they expect a "landslide" when employees cast their votes.
Officials at the agency said the SEC remains a popular place to work for many and Levitt has been successful in luring seasoned professionals in the private sector to the agency.
"Levitt tells people, `Your country needs you,' " said an SEC spokesman. "He consistently refers to people who work here as patriots."
OUT FOR COMMENT: Recipients of an internal Environmental Protection Agency memo dated May 26 got a shock as it characterized Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering lawyer C. Boyden Gray, former counsel to President George Bush, as a "polluter-lobbyist" and "the man some believe is the personification of smog and soot."
Readers assumed Virginia Bueno, communications specialist in the EPA Office of Regulatory Enforcement, wrote the barb and then e-mailed it to employees who receive her newsletter. Oops. Bueno said she sent it but didn't write it. Rather, she sent it along, without attribution, after she picked it up from a bulletin issued by the Clean Air Trust, an environmental group critical of Gray and his role in the lawsuit that resulted in an important EPA rule being overturned.