Unions seek to jointly represent customs, border employees

The American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union are close to agreement on a plan that will allow the two unions to jointly represent employees of the Homeland Security Department's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.

NTEU president Colleen Kelley said AFGE and NTEU plan to petition the Federal Labor Relations Authority for joint recognition of most CBP employees to avert a possible membership vote in which employees would be forced to choose between the two unions. DHS management has the authority to force such a vote, though it has not indicated any plan to do so.

Kelley said the two unions have been discussing possible joint recognition since the Homeland Security Department "was just a twinkle in someone's eye," and explained that their motivation was to avert an election that would be "disruptive to the workforce and to the department." AFGE General Counsel Mark Roth agreed, saying that an election would be "very costly and tumultuous and possibly disabling for the agency."

The plan would affect about 20,000 former Customs Service and former Immigration and Naturalization Service inspectors at the new department. DHS management has launched an initiative to combine inspector positions into one: the customs and border protection officer. But other types of positions also would fall under joint representation, Kelley said, such as former Customs Service trade compliance workers and import specialists.

A gray area would be deciding where former Agriculture Department inspectors, who are now part of DHS, would fit into the plan. Kelley said about 2,000 Agriculture inspectors at CBP would fall under the joint NTEU-AFGE representation, but AFGE general counsel Mark Roth said AFGE would ask that the National Association of Agriculture Employees continue to represent them.

AFGE will continue to represent Border Patrol agents under the plan.

Before DHS' creation, AFGE represented employees of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, including border patrol guards, immigration inspectors and immigration lawyers. NTEU represented Customs inspectors while NAAE represented agriculture inspectors.

To date, DHS management has allowed the three unions to continue to represent those workers. But Homeland Security officials have the right to order a union membership vote in which union members would choose only one union to represent their interests. None of the unions currently represents 70 percent of the agency's employees, which would be enough to trigger an automatic succession rule allowing that union to represent all workers.

Kelley said the agreement was not "done by any means." She said she had engaged in discussions with AFGE president John Gage. They plan to petition the FLRA for joint-recognition, and hope that DHS management will support the move. AFGE's Roth said he expected DHS would go along with the plan.

Roth added that individual locals would remain in place and the two national unions would establish a joint bargaining committee as well as single points of contact for CBP management for who would receive bargaining notices and who would take charge of filing unfair labor practice grievances.