Union files unfair labor practice charge against GAO chief

A federal labor union on Thursday filed an unfair labor practice charge against the head of the Government Accountability Office, claiming he has made inappropriate statements interfering with employees' rights to unionize.

The charge, delivered to Comptroller General David M. Walker by the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, stems from comments the GAO head allegedly has made during agency meetings and to the media.

"Walker has made remarks regarding IFPTE and its efforts to assist employees of GAO in their organizing activities, which violate the requirement that management, especially the comptroller general as head of the agency, maintain strict neutrality during a union organizing campaign," the union stated in the charge.

GAO spokesman Paul Anderson said Friday that Walker had received the letter and is reviewing it. We "look forward to discussing this matter with them in due course," he said.

On May 8, IFPTE filed a representation petition with the GAO Personnel Appeals Board's Office of General Counsel to hold a union election. The push to unionize is partly a response to a new personnel system, under which 308 senior analysts did not receive pay raises last year. 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 workers with comparable skills and experience at other agencies and outside government.

Earlier this month, Walker announced that GAO had hired private law firm Venable LLP to help in responding to the organization effort. GAO also contended that 461 out of the 1,386 employees who filed cards petitioning for the election are in supervisory positions and thereby are ineligible to join unions under labor law.

In Thursday's charge, IFPTE referred to two recent employee team meetings during which Walker made comments that the union alleges are a breach of his legal obligation to remain neutral. At the meetings, Walker told employees that having a union could seriously affect decision-making within the agency and could dramatically slow the agency down. He also allegedly told employees that "the people who want a union are the vocal minority in GAO."

But the bulk of IFPTE's complaint stems from a "Union Update" circulated to GAO employees by agency management on Tuesday. IFPTE said that the memo withholds important information, including that providing the context for a statement that the union refused to accept an offer by GAO management to hold an election in July. IFPTE argued that the memo leaves out the fact that GAO's offer required the union to waive the right of supervisors in a certain pay range (Band IIB) to be represented.

Under GAO's labor-management relations system, unfair labor practice charges must be filed directly to the person being charged. IFPTE and Walker have 30 days to attempt an informal resolution of the charges, and if no agreement is reached, IFPTE can forward the allegations to the Personnel Appeals Board's Office of General Counsel. If the counsel discovers that an unfair labor practice occurred, the parties will have a hearing before the PAB to settle the matter.

Meanwhile, lawmakers discussed the unionization effort on the House floor Friday during consideration of the fiscal 2008 legislative branch appropriations bill. Reps. Danny Davis, D-Ill., and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Fla., criticized what they characterized as Walker's attempts to slow down the unionization process and his decision to "use taxpayer dollars to hire outside counsel."

Davis, who chairs a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, said his subcommittee could not find validity in the 2004 compensation study GAO used to make pay determinations last year. He said Walker had no authority to deny employees increases.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a statement Friday that he is "particularly concerned" with GAO's decision to challenge the eligibility of one-third of the employees covered by the union petition. Hoyer argued that if the 461 employees are supervisors, GAO would have a one-to-three ratio of supervisors to nonsupervisors -- one of the smallest ratios in any public or private organization.

"I am deeply concerned that GAO's challenge is an attempt to delay balloting until the end of the year -- one that will entail a considerable expenditure of resources that will only distract the agency from carrying out critical investigatory and oversight work for the U.S. Congress," Hoyer said.

Wasserman-Shultz, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, said the subcommittee is closely monitoring the unionization effort. "We are requiring GAO management to submit weekly reports on the process," she said.

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