This is the first of two parts. Here, Eddie looks at NTEU’s past under the incumbent’s leadership. On Thursday, August 4, on this website, Eddie outlines a future for NTEU that takes another direction. On Tuesday, August 9, the delegates of the 53rd National Convention in Seattle will choose between the two visions of leadership.
Shakespeare’s often-quoted, “the past is prologue,” has been spun in different ways. Some use it in a fatalistic sense, to assert that people will act in the future as they have in the past. The meaning I prefer is that the past is merely prologue; that we can learn from the past and do better moving forward.
When we look at NTEU’s long history, it’s impossible not to feel proud to be a part of this great institution. When we examine the past four years, however, we realize that the diminishing record of the recent past cannot be what we will accept as our future.
Immediately following the reelection of the current President four years ago, many Chapter Leaders—several whom had supported the incumbent—pressed the President to implement many of the forward-thinking ideas that I had introduced to the campaign. That was the road not taken—what happened instead follows.
At the Convention in 2007, our national leaders appealed for patience from Chapter Leaders. We were urged to step up our efforts to elect a Congress and a President who were more responsive to NTEU’s interests. It was an exciting day when we finally achieved those goals—only to discover later, to our surprise, that our National Office was unable to capitalize on the more union-friendly environment. Despite the issuance of an executive order by President Obama establishing collaborative labor-management forums government-wide—long advocated by NTEU as a sure path to achieving negotiations success—the incumbent has remained unable to leverage that commitment into a cooperative relationship with government agency officials; instead, the hostility is nearly as bad as ever.
At the IRS, NTEU went in to negotiate a contract the week after President Obama’s election. We faced a management team that was well aware that their anti-union stance was losing steam, and they were looking to extract concessions—including a cutback of official and bank time for union officials—before a new Administration was able to exert its influence on the Agency. The result was that much of the contract language adopted reflected the vision of our adversaries in Labor Relations, and ratification of the 2009 IRS National Agreement was rejected by a record one-third of the membership.
“Act as if you had faith, and faith will be given to you.”
Two years into a much different presidential administration, our National Office acted as if they had very little faith in our cause. Our anti-labor opponents in management have taken advantage of this early failure by our leaders to demonstrate strength. Negotiations at the IRS for a new Customer Service Agreement have been widely perceived as givebacks by our members. Current bargaining over Alternative Work Schedules is being watched nervously by Chapter Leaders. There is a disrespectful, dismissive tone in many of the latest rollouts of new initiatives by the Agency.
Bargaining at smaller agencies that have varying missions and very different needs has been rolled up into a haphazard, one-size-fits-all approach. All of our agencies have gotten less than they could have, if only our National Office had been better focused and tougher.
As I have written previously, National NTEU has failed to “make hay while the sun shines. What do we do now, now that clouds have reappeared? The truth is, as a union, we demanded too little pre-2009, and we are demanding too little now.”
What is our main line of defense when it comes to supporting the contracts and rights that we have negotiated? The Field Offices. And how are they doing? There’s been no improvement since 2007, when I called for greater support from the Field Offices to the Chapters in defending employee interests and reflecting the values of our rank and file. For those Chapter Leaders who see no method in the Field Offices’ madness, the bottom line is that the heads—the National Counsels—are bean counters that cherry pick the easy cases. This results in two critical stats: 1) lower costs and 2) a higher percentage of arbitration cases that are won (or more important, that are “settled favorably”).
These are accounting tricks that makes it appear as if the Field has a better record than it does. Many cases that are “settled favorably” are not necessarily considered to be favorable outcomes by the employee or by the Chapter. And of course, we want the Field Offices to be run with an eye toward thrift. But how thrifty is it to hire high-priced lawyers who refuse to handle high-value cases?
The shortcomings of the Field Offices are hidden by the lack of communication promoted by the National Office. There are many instances of Chapters fighting the same battles at different sites. Each Chapter is isolated from the rest, and even Field Offices are not aware of what other Field Offices are filing, winning, and losing—cross-agency communication and cooperation is discouraged as well. This enables the Field Offices to remain unaccountable.
To make matters worse, 40% of the Field Offices’ resources were redirected to the TSA recruiting campaign. The backload and elimination of cases only increased.
Worst of all, the failure of the TSA battle has undermined our past, our present, and our future—in terms of our assets, our membership plans (40,000-plus TSA bargaining unit employees), and our prestige.
The financial stability of NTEU has taken several hits. Four years ago, the incumbent touted the purchase of NTEU’s national headquarters as a signature achievement. Now, she has sold our major financial asset, located in an iconic neighborhood encompassing the White House, in order to pursue her TSA plans. The TSA setback is enormous. To quote The Washington Post, “Clearly it was a huge loss…wouldn’t it be odd if such a big defeat had no impact?”
The TSA members that we had are all gone now, by law. That means that the current President’s claim of increased membership has vanished. Membership has instead decreased, and unless we have a President with the leadership skills to motivate recruitment in the bargaining units we currently represent, how will NTEU grow?
This website has laid out the causes for the incumbent’s failure to win the TSA battle (see the link below). The losing strategy was in place four years ago, during the last Presidential election season. As we got closer to the TSA election, the incumbent made Chapter Leaders believe that victory was within our grasp. Just as she recently told The Washington Post that her own reelection fight was in the bag.
The Post has previously pointed out that our current President has exaggerated her ability as a spokesperson for NTEU and as a Congressional witness:
“It’s not unusual for an agency or an organization to have a primary spokesperson. But the National Treasury Employees Union apparently is so intent on reserving that role for its president, Colleen M. Kelley, that even when other people speak for the union they are not acknowledged by the organization.” – The Washington Post, June 30, 2010
Finally, recent attempts by the incumbent, her campaign supporters, and our Field Offices to intervene in the politics of local Chapters as a method of depressing votes at the Convention go far beyond what has been tolerated for too long as the “ordinary politics” of favoritism and reprisal. The current President, with the help of her allies, has even threatened to use Agency resources such as TIGTA and a libel suit by management as weapons against union officials. It’s time to put an end to unethical behavior by our leadership, and the 2011 Convention is as a good place as any to take a stand.
But it’s not enough to point out the transgressions of the incumbent. It’s critical that an opponent put forward concrete proposals to correct the ship’s course. You will find many of my positions on this website. But I will lay out my campaign promises in full on August 4 in “Why change? Part 2: The future.” – Eddie Walker, August 2