A government employe's union has been cleared of charges that it illegally encouraged members in a Social Security office to strike when it advised them to "refrain from face-to-face interviews" with claimants suffering from AIDS.
No strike took place, but the Social Security Administration took the issue to the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which acts as a little Supreme Court in handling labor-management disputes between the government and unions representing more than half the federal work force.
Victims of AIDS -- a disease that breaks down the body's ability to ward off illness -- are eligible in some cases for financial and medical assistance through Social Security.
A number of AIDs victims have sought such help, but before being approved for benefits, they must be interviewed by Social Security employes, just as applicants for old age and disability benefits must be interviewed. Many of the examiners are represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).
Earlier this year an AFGE local in New York sent out a special precautionary notice about interviews to its members whose jobs might bring them in contact with AIDs victims.
Social Security officials said the union's message was, in effect, a call for employes to strike -- by not doing their jobs -- or otherwise slow down office operations. Strikes or slowdowns against the government are illegal. The penalty for striking can range from suspension to dismissal and/or a fine and a year in jail.
But the union said its message to employes was in no way a call for a strike or slowdown.
The labor relations authority's New York regional office ruled that the union notification did not "clearly" instruct workers to withhold their services or refuse to see or interview certain clients.
Social Security appealed the ruling to Washington headquarters. Headquarters upheld the regional directors'decision. It agreed that the union's instructions to members was of an informational nature and said there was no proof the union intended it as a call to strike or slow down operations, or that workers took it that way.