The Department of Homeland Security yesterday set in motion a months-long process that will likely lead to big changes for unionized employees in one of its large bureaus.

The department filed a petition at the Federal Labor Relations Authority seeking to reduce the number of union contracts from eight to two in the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. Those contracts are held by units of four unions.

The proposal comes as no surprise to the unions, which have been expecting to face a consolidation petition since the department was created in a merger of 22 agencies last year. The proposal could shuffle union representation for about 23,000 employees in the bureau.

In its petition, the department said the reorganization has merged functions, operating methods, duties and responsibilities in CBP. As a result, the bargaining units no longer reflect "the employees' community of interest nor does it promote effective labor management dealings within CBP or CBP's efficiency of operations," the petition said.

Customs and Border Protection consists mainly of employees from the old Customs Service, the old Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Border Patrol and the old Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Under the department's plan, about 10,000 employees in the Border Patrol would remain in the current bargaining unit, under the National Border Patrol Council of the American Federation of Government Employees.

The remaining bargaining units affiliated with AFGE, the National Treasury Employees Union, the National Association of Agriculture Employees and the National Association of Plant Protection and Quarantine Office Support Employees would be consolidated into one union with one contract, according to the petition.

The proposal probably will have important ramifications for the two largest federal unions -- the AFGE, which has long represented immigration employees, and NTEU, which played a strong role at the old Customs Service.

Both unions are led by assertive leaders -- John Gage at AFGE and Colleen Kelley at NTEU. They have been holding private talks in recent months to see if they could create an alliance and continue to represent CBP employees.

The union that appears likely to lose the most is the National Association of Agriculture Employees, which represents about 1,700 agriculture specialists in CBP and an additional 800 employees in the Agriculture Department. Union President Michael Randall said the petition, if approved, would take away about two-thirds of the employees the union represents.

Randall called the proposal "a raw deal" and said he would seek to retain a separate union for agriculture specialists, who guard against pests getting into the country. Animal and plant experts have little in common with customs and immigration officers and should not be forced to become minority members of a consolidated union, he said.

Gage and Kelley said they would continue talks on creating an AFGE-NTEU alliance for CBP employees who are not part of the Border Patrol. "I'm glad we had some time to think this through and do a lot of work that will lead up to our being able to file a joint response," Kelley said.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said the petition was filed "to help achieve fairness and equity for our unified workforce." He said that existing contracts and union arrangements will continue, pending a ruling from the FLRA.

That could take months, because the FLRA probably will ask the unions for detailed responses to the department's petition and may conduct an investigation to determine how the reorganization has altered union representation for employees.

The filing of the petition is somewhat ironic. During congressional hearings, the department said it needed to create its own labor relations board for national security reasons, and it portrayed the 1978 law that the FLRA enforces as outdated and a barrier to nimble operations.

The department is nearing the final stages of implementing regulations that would restrict union bargaining rights in several key areas, including deployment of workers and use of technology.

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