More than 5,000 Food and Drug Administration employees have ratified a new five-year collective bargaining agreement between their agency and the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), one of the largest unions representing federal workers.

The ratification represents the first official bargaining agreement for some 4,600 FDA employees, many of them doctors and research scientists, who officially elected to join the union last year.

The agreement, scheduled to take effect Oct. 1, includes, among other things, a new flexible work schedule, a transit subsidy of up to $65 for commuters, a "gain-sharing" program allowing employees to keep a portion of any travel expenses saved or frequent-flier miles earned, and a provision that will allow FDA employees to nominate themselves to go before the agency's peer review board that helps determine raises and promotions. Previously, employees had to be nominated by others.

The agreement also includes a professional "difference of opinion" clause designed to protect FDA employees who may disagree with the agency's scientific findings. The clause is actually a restatement of current law. NTEU president Colleen M. Kelley said it was nonetheless important to FDA scientists concerned that they could be forced to concur on every FDA finding, regardless of their own opinions.

"There had been the perception of a problem," Kelley said. "There was the perception that it was not well received to have a difference of opinion with the agency. Our goal was to have language in the document agreed to by both parties."

The agreement does not allow the union to negotiate salary. The law prohibits unions from negotiating salaries for most federal employees whose agencies are directly funded by Congress.