The transit subsidy has been tripled to $65 a month. Three emergency day-care slots have been arranged for workers who need babysitters. The dress code is a bit looser. Wider use of flexible work hours may be coming next. And management is trying to get special bonus money for certain essential employees.
This is all good for employees at the Securities and Exchange Commission. But there is controversy over who deserves credit for the array of new benefits in recent months, while the National Treasury Employees Union has been trying to organize about 1,800 lawyers, accountants, economists and other professionals who help enforce the nation's securities laws.
The agency said many of the fringe benefits that have been appearing over the past few months have been in the works for some time. Some are related to budget increases the agency got by convincing Congress that it needed more funds so it wouldn't lose its key professionals to the highly lucrative world of private practice, officials said.
The NTEU believes the SEC has heard the rumble of its own employees trying to organize and has responded with some new programs. Some SEC employees have complained that low pay--at least relative to their counterparts in private practice--and lots of unpaid overtime are reasons to consider unionizing.
"We'd say these benefits weren't available until the NTEU stepped in," said Colleen M. Kelley, national president of the NTEU.
"It just raises the bar, and everyone credits the union," said Michael Clampitt, an SEC lawyer and a leader in the organizing drive. "It shows everyone what is possible."
About 60 percent of the federal work force is unionized, according to the Office of Personnel Management, far higher than the rate in the private work force, which is less than 10 percent.
Union supporters got a boost from the Federal Labor Relations Authority earlier this month when it ruled that an election should be held to establish a single bargaining unit at the SEC. The FLRA oversees union elections in the federal government.
The FLRA got involved when the SEC filed an objection to the creation of a single bargaining unit that would represent employees whether they worked in Washington or Fort Worth. The agency insisted that its 11 field offices have autonomy to set all kinds of personnel policy and the union--if elected--should bargain with each office.
"Negotiating for a single bargaining unit would create significant inefficiencies. It is likely to generate disagreements among the regional and District offices on numerous workplace issues, as well as with Headquarters," Harvey Goldschmidt, SEC general counsel, said in a letter to the union.
At the FLRA hearing, the district administrator of the Fort Worth office testified about his independence from Washington. He said he didn't have to get anyone's approval to stop employees from wearing cowboy boots (if they weren't dress boots) and bolo ties in the office. He also allows flextime for employees and decides bonuses. Other regional officials testified to their autonomy.
The FLRA disagreed with the SEC's argument. The agency now has 60 days to decide whether it wants to appeal that ruling.
"If they appeal this it will be a slap in the face to the employees," said Kelley, who has written SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt Jr. urging him not to challenge the decision and schedule an election. When the SEC filed its objection to the election with the FLRA, Kelley told Levitt that the agency had reneged on an agreement with the union to let employees vote on the issue.
Originally, a vote was expected last September, union officials said. But that was thrown off track when the SEC filed with the FLRA and also hired Krupin Greenbaum & O'Brien, a Washington law firm that specializes in advising management on labor issues.
The perception among some employees was that the agency was trying to defeat the union effort by paying an outside law firm some $100,000 for advice. The SEC said the firm has been paid $40,000 so far.
The agency also is tangling with the NTEU, which filed its own action with the FLRA, over whether the SEC transferred an employee out of a job in the enforcement division at headquarters because he was a union supporter.
The SEC maintains that the employee, Charles Snead, a computer specialist, is a poor performer and exhibited improper conduct, especially when he told superiors he was going to take a gun with him on assignment to New York City to keep in his hotel room. Jefferson Friday, an NTEU lawyer, said the gun issue is a "bunch of noise" and a pretense for removing Snead from his job. Snead said in the end he made the trip without a gun.
Friday said Snead was "one of our main guys" and succeeded in promoting the union at the SEC. The case remains unsettled.
In the meantime, the union wants its "education" of SEC employees to continue. The NTEU scheduled a rally outside SEC headquarters yesterday, but canceled it because of the snow. It has been rescheduled for Feb. 8. Kelley will speak and organizers and employees are expected to march outside the building with signs bearing slogans such as "Mr. Levitt, Let Us Vote" and "No More SEC Union Busting."
Let's just say this isn't your mother's SEC anymore.
OUT FOR COMMENT:
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is girding for a torrent of comments on its controversial ergonomics regulatory proposal. Comments are due Feb. 1, and the agency expects at least 100,000 of them. Better have a good chair and proper lighting . . .
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