From the man-bites-dog file: The Labor Department has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against one of its unions and won the first round of hearings.

Usually, the unions are the ones that file such complaints. Only rarely does a federal agency accuse a union of refusing to bargain. This is the first time such a step has been taken at the Labor Department, an administration official said.

The complaint grew out of a tangled dispute that began early this year, when the department moved to negotiate a new contract and held back on providing its employees with what many thought would be an automatic increase in monthly mass-transit subsidies.

The case is before the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which rules on labor-management disputes at government agencies, and may take months to resolve. Last month, the FLRA's regional office dismissed two complaints of unfair labor practice that were filed by Local 12 of the American Federation of Government Employees but took up a complaint made by the department.

"We are definitely going to file a response. We disagree with the FLRA's determination," said Larry Drake, president of Local 12.

The union had complained that Labor officials were bypassing it by sending memos to agency employees on the status of negotiations. The Labor memos, written by Assistant Secretary Patrick Pizzella, pointed out that the department and a union that represents field employees had negotiated a raise in the maximum transit subsidy from $65 to $100 a month.

Drake contends that the department was trying to confuse the issue and make improper use of the subsidy as a bargaining chip in contract negotiations with Washington area employees. The increase to $100 should be automatic for those employees, Drake said, because an executive order directs Washington area federal offices to provide employees with the maximum tax-free subsidy allowed by the Internal Revenue Service.

The executive order does not apply to federal offices outside the national capital region, so the issue was a proper subject of negotiation between the department and the union for field employees, Drake said.

Yesterday, the union held a rally to urge Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao to raise the subsidy. Among the speakers were representatives of the Sierra Club and the Service Employees International Union. The union also is working to gain the support of members of Congress, such as Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who look favorably on workplace policies that reduce traffic and pollution.

Still, the subsidy is included in the AFGE's contract, and the Labor Department argues that it should be a part of larger negotiations aimed at updating a decade-old master agreement.

"Until that occurs, however, all existing mandatory negotiable working conditions of bargaining unit employees, including transit subsidies, remain unchanged," Pizzella said in a memo to employees.

In a letter to the union, Barbara S. Liggett, the FLRA's acting regional director, said Pizzella's memos "did not urge employees to exert pressure on" the AFGE local and "merely presented management's position in connection with a dispute with the local without making any false statements."

She agreed with the department that the AFGE local had committed an unfair labor practice by refusing to negotiate over the master contract. A hearing has been scheduled for March 10.

Drake hopes the issue will be moot by then, because he expects the department and the union to be at the negotiating table in December or January. But for now, the union plans to defend itself.

In cases in which the FLRA's regional office takes up a complaint, authority lawyers move on two tracks: They prepare a legal case but also encourage the parties to reach a voluntary settlement. If the two sides cannot agree, they end up before an administrative law judge, who imposes a remedy.

"The idea of the government bringing a labor-management dispute against one of its unions is truly stunning," said Don Kettl, a University of Wisconsin professor who studies federal management issues. "That doesn't happen every day."

Talk Show "FEDtalk," at 11 a.m. tomorrow on federalnewsradio.com, will discuss inspector general investigations of alleged employee misconduct and what to do when the IG calls.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address is barrs@washpost.com.