Recently I had the opportunity to attend a very enlightening event here in Austin. It was called “Dining in the Dark,” and it was held to benefit the Austin Council of the Blind.

The idea was to experience “dinner and a movie” under conditions typical for folks who are blind or visually impaired.

The name, “Dining in the Dark,” says it all. We, the diners, sat in total darkness for about two hours, during which we were served courses of food by blind and visually impaired waiters.

Chapter 247 members who are blind or visually impaired helped organize and conduct the affair. A number of our Chapter Leaders made the scene, and I enlisted the Chapter to make an extra financial contribution and help sponsor the event.

A little after 7:00 p.m. that Saturday night, my wife Laurie and I were shepherded into a pitch-black banquet room at the Airport Hilton. Immediately, I was made aware of the complications of maneuvering through a darkened room. Seating a banquet room full of guests who had suddenly lost their sight was no picnic.

One of the hosts for the evening, Austin Council of the Blind official and Chapter 247 member, Judy Jackson, introduced a film, “Little Miss Sunshine.” This night, the sighted guests were given the opportunity to enjoy the movie with a voiceover describing the action.

It was a very fun, entertaining, and educational evening.

The Austin Council of the Blind works to promote the education, employment, and empowerment needs of those in Texas who are blind or visually impaired. But in our workplace, NTEU is the onsite protector of these employees.

It is no exaggeration to say that I have had to personally intervene with management to protect the rights of most blind and visually impaired employees working in Austin Compliance over the past few years. Our Chapter knows that, despite federal law and government commitments, many folks would suffer under insensitive managers if they didn’t have the union to intercede in their behalf.

NTEU has championed the interests of those with disabilities or disadvantages on the Austin Campus. Recently, even some in management have stepped up to the plate to support these employees. But the latest actions by the IRS have been appalling.

A NTEU settlement on behalf of Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HOH) employees has been endangered by some in Agency circles who have attempted to wrestle implementation away from the union and into their own hands. The settlement promises up to $3,000 to our Deaf and HOH members whose need for an interpreter was ignored. Per the agreement, local NTEU chapters are responsible for seeing that the required claim forms are filled out accurately by qualified employees, but Agency management has moved to seize control over the process from the union. Local Labor Relations representatives assert that “the claim process is being handled at the national level by the IRS Disability Office (IDO), who determined which employees were eligible and distributed the form to those eligible employees. Not all employees qualified.”

LR further insists that “Local management has no role in the collection of the claim forms.” According to our sources, the Agency has gone around local management and NTEU Chapters in order to solicit employees directly. If the IRS fails to reach out to most of the qualified Deaf and HOH employees in the process, as it appears, it seems to be okay with that. After all, in this case, the Agency lost its battle with NTEU over its treatment of employees; now it has a second chance to prevail if the union doesn’t keep its eye on the ball.

Sadly, our national office seems to be looking elsewhere. Many Chapters are concerned that their warnings to National NTEU over the careless implementation of the Deaf and HOH settlement have, so far, been unheard.

What’s worse than fighting for years, winning, then snatching defeat from the jaws of victory? The cause of the problem is unclear. Is it apathy by our national office? Is it inattention to follow up, a desire to move on? There are ways to avoid these oversights, and I have put forward the solutions again and again. To avert a lack of follow up, 1) Appoint an ombudsman with regular access to the National President; 2) Hold regular conference calls with Chapter Leaders; 3) Elect a National President that is accountable, and committed to the agenda of the Chapter Leaders, the ones who know best what is important to frontline employees.

National NTEU could use some enlightenment. It’s time for our leadership to listen up. – Eddie Walker, July 5