Labor Department and union wrangle over transit subsidy

An 18-month-long dispute over increasing the transit subsidy benefit for some employees at the Labor Department led union members to stage a second protest Tuesday in front of the agency's headquarters.

Members of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 12, which represents Labor employees in the Washington area, braved the heat Tuesday afternoon, marching up and down in front of their workplace demanding that Labor officials raise their transit subsidy from $65 to $100. Union members staged an earlier protest rally last October.

A Clinton-era executive order required agencies to offer transit subsidies to employees in the Washington metropolitan area. Initially the maximum amount employees could receive was $65 a month, but in January 2002 the ceiling was raised to $100 a month and many agencies followed suit.

Labor Department officials decided in January 2002 to address the measure during negotiations with the union for a new collective bargaining agreement.

"The bargaining agreement we have with Local 12 predates the Internet," said Patrick Pizzella, assistant secretary of Labor for administration and management. "It goes back to 1992, and there are a lot of things that need to be updated to bring the contract into the 21st century."

But the negotiations have dragged on for 18 months, with the department filing an unfair labor practices charge with the Federal Labor Relations Authority against the union, contending that union officials would not bargain with department officials. FLRA decided in favor of the Labor Department on Sept. 30, 2002 and the next day all employees in the Washington area who were not part of the AFGE Local 12 bargaining unit received an increase in their transit subsidy. Recently the two parties took the issue to the Federal Service Impasses Panel. In the meantime, the transit subsidy for AFGE Local 12 members remains locked at $65.

"They are holding us hostage for contract negotiations," said Larry Drake, president of AFGE Local 12. "They want us to give up something to get this, and we're not giving up anything to get this; we're entitled to it."

The transit subsidy should not be part of the protracted negotiation proceedings with the Labor Department, Drake said.

According to Pizzella, the successful negotiation with Labor Department field office employees to increase the transit benefit shows there is a track record of the department negotiating over the issue. Nearly 9,000 employees in Labor Department field offices got the increase in July 2002.

"We did negotiate with our field locals, successfully, and the increase in the transit subsidy was one of the outcomes of those negotiations," Pizzella said. "We're hoping to sit down with them as we did the union that represents our field employees."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., joined the union members on Tuesday, challenging Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to raise the subsidy and settle the matter.

"Who ever heard of the notion that the union has to negotiate for things they are entitled to under the law?" Norton asked the group of more than 100 employees standing on the sidewalk waving their fists and yelling "Subsidy now, Chao!" and "Give us our $100!"

"[The executive order] says 'shall implement' it doesn't say 'may implement,'" Norton continued.

Pizzella insisted the situation might have been resolved if negotiations with union officials had not stalled.

"We wanted to negotiate with them and they were less than forthcoming until we took actions to bring things to a head," Pizzella said.

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