Union campaign raises questions about reach of Obama executive order

A campaign to organize workers at the nonprofit Legal Services Corporation is raising questions about what kinds of employers are covered under an executive order President Obama issued in January that bans agencies from paying contractors for expenses they incur in efforts to thwart unionization campaigns.

The International Federation of Technical and Professional Engineers is attempting to organize workers at the legal aid organization, which is funded entirely through federal appropriations. In a July 31 letter to lawmakers, Paul Shearon, the secretary treasurer of the union, charged that Legal Services Corporation had violated administration policy by hiring a law firm to advise it during the unionization campaign.

"Clearly, LSC's use of taxpayer monies to retain a 'union avoidance' consultant is in direct contradiction to Executive Order 13494," Shearon wrote. "IFPTE believes that LSC should not be permitted to unilaterally misuse taxpayer monies to intimidate their employees who are trying to form a union."

Though private sector companies frequently hire consultants to advise them during unionization campaigns, the practice is less common in the federal government. IFPTE sharply criticized the Government Accountability Office's former comptroller general, David M. Walker, when he hired a law firm to counsel the agency during an ultimately successful campaign by IFPTE to organize workers at GAO.

President Obama's January executive order blocked agencies from reimbursing contractors for expenses they incurred in efforts to either dissuade or persuade their employees from joining a union or bargaining for a contract as part of a union. Stephen Barr, a spokesman for the Legal Services Corporation, said it wasn't clear whether the nonprofit organization counted as a contractor, under the executive order, and that the matter is under review.

"The corporation has retained outside counsel to ensure that the relevant legal requirements for this complex area of the law are met," Barr said. "The union sent us a letter requesting voluntary recognition, which we declined, because we believe this is something the employees should vote on through a secret ballot."

IFPTE has filed a petition to hold a union election with the National Labor Relations Board.

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