Whenever I think of the hardships that Chapter Presidents have to face regarding cutbacks in official time, I think of the incumbent’s remarks in 2007, when we both attended a Business Improvement Committee (BIC) meeting at IRS National Office in Washington. Official time for the union was on the agenda. The Acting Commissioner was implying that goldbricking NTEU officials were a significant factor in what management considered the excessive use of official time.

I spoke up, arguing that I didn’t know any Chapter Presidents who weren’t working hard on behalf of their employees. That’s when Colleen volunteered, “Oh, no, Eddie,” shaking her head sadly, “there are a lot” of Chapter Presidents who were abusing government time. The Commissioner, who was seated next to our President at the head of the conference table, nodded in solidarity with her union counterpart.

I tried—very hard—to keep my game face on. But the incident made me question both the President’s negotiation skills and her allegiance.

The incumbent’s attitude is reflected in the major concessions made by National NTEU in negotiations in recent years. Later that same day, I experienced another example of that attitude.

The IRS had suffered through a humiliating boycott of the Employee Engagement Survey in 2006. The successful action by NTEU was a significant show of union power, and it seriously unnerved IRS management. (In Austin, for instance, my mobilization of Chapter 247′s boycott effort resulted in a local participation level of approximately 14%, the lowest of any Service Center Chapter.) The union’s performance must have been embarrassing for the Agency, and there was every indication that management wanted very badly to put an end to NTEU’s boycott. As one sage noted, “You’re in a much better position to talk with people when they approach you than when you approach them.” In 2007, management approached us.

Following the BIC meeting that day, Colleen and I joined another Chapter President for a cab ride back to NTEU Headquarters. That’s when the National President shared her secret with us. She told us that she was leaning toward ending the boycott, and coming out in support of the upcoming 2007 Survey.

I told Colleen that it would be difficult to turn on a dime and strongly back the Survey. I recommended that NTEU’s stand should not change unless she first extracted a major concession from the Agency.

When we arrived at NTEU National Headquarters, the President told our entire team that she was almost sure that she wanted to end the boycott. She believed that she had a better relationship with the new group of IRS leaders that was coming on board, and she wanted to make this concession in order to earn good will with management.

I reiterated that NTEU was in a strong position, and that we really needed to get something in return for our support of the Survey; the other Chapter Presidents nodded in agreement. I advised the incumbent that she force the Agency to back off of their recent union-busting action barring NTEU from employee team meetings, where many employee issues and changes in working conditions were discussed without the presence of the union. This was a very important issue to many Chapters.

A very short time later, we received our answer. The deal was made—or, more likely, had already been made by the time that we were “consulted” by our President. NTEU backed the Survey, but received nothing in return, and the IRS continued to demonstrate no good will in its dealings with the union. This soft-sell approach has continued in successive years.

The incumbent has just released a newsletter that responds to IRS call site issues—issues that have been raised on this website over the past six months. The newsletter includes a profile of the Customer Service Agreement (CSA), the successor to an agreement from 1999. In no significant way is the new agreement superior to the first; in many ways, it is a step backward, a retreat toward management’s tunnel view of the role of employees in the workplace.

Under this agreement, the leave approval process has been made more complicated and cumbersome for employees and management, seniority is undermined, and the system’s complexity makes it easier for management to throw roadblocks in the way of leave approval. The CSA also takes a time-tracking system that has proven to be inaccurate after years of use in the ACS operation, and imposes it on tens of thousands of additional employees covered by the agreement. The only upside for management is that they can use the system to keep a better eye on thousands of employees. This agreement has been used to force employees to sign onto the ASPECT phone system from the start of their day until the end—whether or not they are actually answering the phones.

The outrage of employees over the CSA has stretched across the country. Threats of leaving the union are at an all-time high, as any call site President can tell you; and the whole outcry could have been avoided if the National Office had kept its eye on the ball. For years, the National President and the National Executive Vice President were warned of the pitfalls to avoid in renegotiating the CSA. For years, they heard the arguments and concerns of Chapter Presidents over specific provisions of the agreement. I know—I was in the room. In the end, they ignored our input.

When this important agreement was signed, NTEU did not exactly shout its existence from the rooftops. Buried on page three of the November 2010 NTEU Bulletin, there is a story, “Agreement Fixes Broken Leave System for IRS Reps,” which touts the imaginary leave benefits of “a new customer service agreement” (in lower case letters)—no acknowledgement that this was the years-in-the-making Customer Service Agreement (in caps) that would determine the quality of work for many thousands of employees for years to come.

During a meeting of Service Center Chapter Presidents at the end of February, Frank Ferris swept into the room proclaiming, “We know that the Customer Service Agreement is great for employees, but we have a PR problem. We’re looking to you Chapter Presidents for ideas on how to sell it.” Frank and Colleen then passed out copies of a brochure being developed for mailing to members which praised the agreement. Chapter Leaders looked at each other in disbelief. We then attempted to explain again why the CSA did not appeal to our members.

After blowback from Chapter Leaders and employees, Frank—and the National President—have changed their tune about the merits of the CSA, but the oversight, the inattention to detail, is not out of character for our National Office.

For the past four years, NTEU has failed to take advantage of the executive order by President Obama establishing collaborative labor-management forums government-wide. According to our leadership, this was a necessary part of our strategy for achieving negotiations success. As I have said before, “In 2007, the national leadership was asking for patience from Chapter Leaders. We were asked to hunker down, and work for a more responsive Congress, and a more responsive President. We won both those things, and yet, National NTEU has failed to ‘make hay while the sun shines.’ What do we do now, now that clouds have reappeared?”

Our national leadership is now running away from the past four years. But the past four years did happen. And all of the National Office newsletters and brochures and nearly-instantaneous revisionist history can’t erase that. When the cynicism of our leadership rivals that of their management counterparts, it’s time for a change. – Eddie Walker, July 19

Read more about the negotiations issue:  “We dare not tempt them with weakness.”