GAO to challenge eligibility of employees to unionize

Government Accountability Office leaders are hiring a private law firm to assist them in responding to an employee effort to hold a union election, and plan to challenge the eligibility of more than a third of the employees who filed petitions for such an election.

GAO's legal representatives were scheduled to meet this week with representatives of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers and the GAO Personnel Appeals Board to try to reach agreement on how to conduct a union election.

But at the opening of the meeting, GAO's management representative, Barbara Simball, informed IFPTE and the Personnel Appeals Board that management was in the process of hiring a law firm to provide advice and assistance on the unionizing effort. She said until a contract counsel was formally arranged, GAO was not authorized to reach agreement on the election proceedings.

IFPTE General Counsel Julie Clark said Friday that she was unaware until Wednesday's meeting that GAO had decided to hire outside legal counsel. She said the parties were scheduled to meet for three days to determine whether there was disagreement over the grounds for a union election, and if so, whether a hearing before PAB on the issue would be necessary before an election could take place.

Several employees who asked to remain anonymous criticized the agency's use of outside counsel, noting that it has many attorneys of its own.

GAO spokesman Paul Anderson said Friday that GAO has 141 attorneys, including those in the procurement law section, who handle bid protests. But the agency's lawyers are not familiar with unionization issues, he said, which is the reason the agency is looking outside for help. "GAO has never had a union," he said.

Anderson added that management is interviewing a number of law firms on an "expedited basis." Simball said Wednesday that GAO expected to complete the selection process within a week.

Simball also announced at the meeting that GAO management intends to challenge the eligibility of 461 of 1,386 employees who filed petition cards for the election. GAO contends that the 461 employees, who are "nonspecialist supervisors" in Band IIB of the agency's paybanding system, are not eligible for union representation as defined by labor law.

"GAO believes it would be inconsistent with applicable labor laws for a union to attempt to organize nonspecialist Band IIB supervisors," Anderson said. "This issue will be resolved by the Personnel Appeals Board in the normal course."

But one employee, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said Friday that the nonspecialist Band IIB supervisors are simply put in charge of certain projects and are not part of management. "They don't supervise projects; they don't hire or fire; they don't give ratings," the employee said. "None of them in any way fits the labor law definition."

The push to unionize is partly a response to a new personnel system at GAO, under which 308 senior analysts did not receive pay raises last year. Comptroller General David M. Walker has said the decision to deny the employees the pay hike was based on a 2004 market-based compensation study that determined many analysts were overpaid relative to employees with comparable skills and experience at other agencies and outside government.

Clark said GAO's challenges could cause a significant delay in the union election. "Given the scope and volume of GAO management's challenge, this process will require the dedication of substantial time and resources by both the union and GAO management, and significantly delay a representation election," Clark wrote in a May 31 letter to PAB General Counsel Anne Wagner.

IFPTE proposed proceeding with the election and resolving the 461 challenges afterward if the challenged votes are significant in the election's outcome. While only 30 percent of employees must sign petition cards for a union election to take place, 51 percent of employees must agree to bring a union into the workplace.

But Wagner argued that because GAO management's challenge questions the representational rights of one third of the potential bargaining unit, she was disinclined to hold an election before a formal hearing takes place. Typically, the postelection challenge determination procedure is limited to situations where no more than 15 percent of the voting pool is challenged, Wagner noted.

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