Rising Expectations

Start of a new union at GAO could change the labor landscape for white-collar feds.

More than a year ago, about 20 employees from the Government Accountability Office began meeting in the basement of Holy Rosary Church in Washington, charting their plans to bring in the first union in the agency's 86-year history.

On Sept. 19, the plan came to fruition. Out of an eligible bargaining unit of 1,800, analysts voted 897-445 to join the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, giving employees the ability to negotiate with management over pay and other personnel policies. And in an era when human capital reform and pay for performance in the federal government seem inevitable, the case at GAO indicates how older and even younger generations of employees are increasingly seeking a voice in the way management decisions are set.

The union effort started with great uncertainty on the part of GAO employees, who were unaware that they could even have a union, says Jonathan Tumin, a senior analyst who started the campaign. Employees began looking to other legislative branch agencies for advice, ultimately leading them to seek representation with the Congressional Research Service's elected union-IFPTE.

Analysts' efforts were a response to sweeping personnel changes in 2005, when Comptroller General David M. Walker reassigned 800 of 1,200 senior analysts to a lower pay category and froze cost-of-living increases for many. "It all came down to employees feeling that their careers, which are partly connected to what they're paid, were being put in jeopardy," Tumin says. "We knew we needed some sort of legal protection to prevent us from being at the whim of management."

Still, Walker has defended his position on the personnel changes, arguing that a study conducted by consulting firm Watson Wyatt in 2004 found that many GAO analysts were overpaid relative to employees with comparable skills and experience at other agencies and outside government. But the study, now undergoing congressional investigation, was criticized by Charles Fay, a professor of human resource management at Rutgers University, who argued that it showed significant problems ranging from the fact that only executives were involved in producing it to the "ambiguous and confusing" documentation of the study process and the resulting pay structure.

Regardless of whether Walker's personnel reforms had merit, however, many employees had felt betrayed and unappreciated for their work, says Robert Kershaw, a senior analyst who joined GAO in the 1970s. But what had begun as an effort involving many senior employees like Kershaw eventually evolved into an organizing campaign involving all analysts as a result of a July 18 agreement between IFPTE and attorneys representing GAO. That agreement provided, at the urging of Walker, that all 300 temporary entry-level employees working in the agency's Professional Development Program be included in the bargaining unit.

"Our mission at GAO is transparency and accountability," says Chris Langford, a PDP employee who voted in favor of the union. "We believe the way we can achieve that mission at GAO is through organizing this union."

Langford says while most temporary employees do not object to pay for performance, they feel the current system lacks transparency and adequate communication. Many PDP employees feared that some of the issues that affect senior analysts could resurface when they faced placement in a permanent position, he says.

Many PDP employees are interested in creating a standard for 360-degree feedback performance evaluations, which would give employees the opportunity to review their managers. "Some employees may be great analysts, but that doesn't mean they should be a manager," says one PDP employee who requested anonymity. "There's no way to communicate that."

Walker has pledged to bargain in good faith. "While I believe that we have made great progress, it is true that some of our human capital reforms have been challenging and controversial, and I realize that not all [employees] have agreed with some of our changes," Walker says. "While I may not always agree with certain comments that I have received, I have considered them all in making changes and respect the varied opinions and the individuals and organizations who express them."

Meanwhile, IFPTE's approach to GAO, especially its efforts to reach out to younger employees, has been unique in the federal government. For the last year, many employees' offices were decorated with red, white and blue stickers bearing the words "band together."

The union also posted several videos to its Web site (www.gaoanalysts.org) showing all generations of GAO employees speaking about the value of a union. And a group of employees launched their own Web site (www.gaounion.net), providing analysts an opportunity to address questions or concerns with the organizing campaign. "We come from professional and technical backgrounds, and we're intrigued by all the new tools available to communicate with workers," says Paul Shearon, secretary-treasurer for IFPTE.

How having a union at GAO will affect the agency's personnel policies and mission is ultimately up to employees, says Julie Clark, general counsel for IFPTE. Employees are electing representatives and writing a constitution with the goal of having a strong working relationship with Walker, IFPTE officials say.

No matter what happens in the coming months, the union's efforts already are having an impact outside the watchdog agency.

So much momentum has built up around the GAO organizing campaign that judges, lawyers and engineers are contacting IFPTE almost daily for information on union representation, according to Shearon. "Anytime you're able to get Ph.D.s to vote for a labor union, it gives a lot of legitimacy to unionization in the federal workforce," he says.

In September, the AFL-CIO hailed the GAO victory as a harbinger of new interest in unionization among professional white-collar employees. "More and more white-collar workers are turning to unions for a voice on the job," says Paul Almeida, president of the Department of Professional Employees. "GAO is indicative of that."

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