Union, immigration agency move toward new contract

By Brittany Ballenstedt

April 13, 2007

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the American Federation of Government Employees signed a joint agreement Friday in an effort to improve the working relationship between agency managers and union representatives. The move marks the first step in the development of a new labor-management contract. The agency is operating under an old contract negotiated in 2000 for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was split into USCIS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection when the Homeland Security Department was established in 2003.

"USCIS is at a mission crossroad that requires its best effort to meet the national security and immigration needs of the nation," USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez said. "Empowering USCIS employees to better accomplish their mission and encouraging mutual respect between management and workers through this agreement are keys to our future success."

The agreement, signed by Gonzalez and AFGE President John Gage, enlists the help of two management facilitators, Robert Tobias and Erin Baillie, to collect information and analyze the labor-management relationships at agency offices in Vermont, California and Dallas.

Tobias is the former president of the National Treasury Employees Union and current director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation at American University. Baillie is a consultant with Federal Management Partners, a human resources consulting firm.

Tobias and Baillie will interview employees, managers and union officials at the sites through the end of May.

The site visits are designed "to take a pulse of the patient -- the patient being the agency -- of how labor-management relations [function], because they are different in different locations," said Michael Knowles, president of the AFGE National USCIS Council.

Representatives of USCIS management and labor will then meet in June to discuss a plan to build a more efficient and effective relationship, culminating with the development of the agency's first labor-management contract.

Knowles said that when Congress passed the legislation that established DHS and its new personnel system, the department agreed to honor the existing collective bargaining agreement from INS, which expired in 2003, until each subcomponent agency could establish its representative union.

Because USCIS, ICE and CBP all have different missions, officials decided each agency should have its own contract and bargaining council, Knowles said.

Gage said AFGE will go to the negotiating table with ICE next week. AFGE recently appealed an election decision rendering NTEU the sole union for non-Border Patrol CBP employees.

By Brittany Ballenstedt

April 13, 2007