Election to represent Customs, Border employees under way

An election to select a single union is under way for a large group of Homeland Security Department employees.

Despite a last-ditch effort by a small Agriculture Department union to stall the contest, ballots were mailed to 21,000 eligible employees at DHS' Customs and Border Protection bureau May 9. Employees have until June 22 to return them, and votes will be counted beginning June 27.

Ballot recipients are choosing among the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Treasury Employees Union or no union, with the Federal Labor Relations Authority overseeing the election.

AFGE national organizer Bill Lyons said his union is distributing DVDs to nearly every voter featuring AFGE members in other DHS agencies such as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau and the Transportation Security Administration. The union's message, also communicated in "lunch and learns" held nationwide, is that AFGE is the most prominent union throughout the department.

NTEU President Colleen Kelley said her union is holding meetings after work, at lunchtime and in break rooms at ports around the country.

"Most important I think is employees' experience," Kelley said. "They know what they see happening in the workplace each day, they know nationally who is driving the issues. They know what's important to them. We just made sure they had the answers to their questions."

A much smaller union, the National Association of Agriculture Employees, had filed a motion in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to delay the election, in an attempt to gain back some of the members it stands to lose by being left off the ballot. When DHS was created, some USDA employees were lumped into the newly formed department.

But a day before the ballots were set to be sent out, the 9th Circuit informed the Agriculture union that it denied its request to delay the election, according to Kim Mann, a lawyer representing the union.

But the court will hear the full case on its merits. It centers on a claim that more than 800 of the union's members are GS-11 agricultural specialists who qualify as professionals, and therefore should not be lumped into a union with nonprofessionals.

The court did not, however, schedule briefs to be completed until the first week in July, after the election has ended.

"It's going to be very difficult for us to undo," Mann said. "Once our members have already cast votes and signed up to become members of the winning union, it's going to be difficult for us to disavow that commitment they've made…[but] I'm hoping a couple of months is not going to be too bad because unions are pretty institutionalized."

The election was initiated by the agency itself. Officials said they want to promote unity among employees.

That quest pits two unions that are working side by side on DHS issues, including a lawsuit over the agency's personnel reforms, against one another. If NTEU loses the election, then it will lose the bulk of its members in DHS.

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