Labor Department Prevails in Bargaining Dispute With Local 12

The Labor Department, which filed an unfair labor practice complaint against a federal union, has won its case.

In a recent ruling, Richard A. Pearson, an administrative law judge at the Federal Labor Relations Authority, concluded that Local 12 of the American Federation of Government Employees "committed an unfair labor practice by its conduct."

He added, "It is important that the union and its members understand that its conduct and strategy were fundamentally, legally flawed and that it cannot repeat such conduct."

Usually, it's the other way around, with unions accusing agencies of such conduct. But in this case the department took the rare step of contending that Local 12 was in the wrong.

The ruling grew out of a tangled dispute that began in early 2002 and resulted in a hearing before Pearson in March 2003. The case, covered in the Diary at the time, involved an effort by the department to renegotiate its contract with the union and a dispute over whether Labor employees could automatically receive an increase in monthly mass transit subsidies.

The union refused to bargain, contending that the department had failed to conduct timely negotiations on ground rules for the bargaining. In the union's view, the lack of timely action on ground rules caused the contract to roll over for another year.

The department acknowledged that it did not promptly follow up with the union after sending its notice to reopen the contract and, as a result, did not hold any meetings to discuss ground rules for the contract talks, according to Pearson's ruling.

But the department also contended that the contract imposed only a requirement for notice, which was given. Pearson agreed.

"There is no valid reason for one party's violation of a particular ground rule to negate the other party's entire obligation to bargain," Pearson wrote. He added, "Such reasoning is antithetical to the duty to bargain in good faith . . . and it violates the principle that ground rules should be designed to further, not impede, the bargaining process."

Larry Drake, president of AFGE Local 12, said the union does not agree with Pearson's decision "but at this point, it is moot. We don't have any plans to appeal it."

In December 2002, during the dispute, the union and department agreed to begin their long slog toward a contract. But the union and the department failed to reach agreement on 13 provisions in the new contract, and that dispute was taken to the Federal Service Impasses Panel. The panel -- all Bush appointees -- ruled in favor of the department on 12 of the provisions.

In a Jan. 7 ruling, the panel laid out new conditions for flexible work schedules, hours of work, leave, telecommuting, technology and other issues.

Under the ruling, the department may place limits on flextime and change the hours of work. Employees will perform their work between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m., instead of 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. "Core hours," when everyone should be in the office, will be 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., instead of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Since 1980, Drake said, the 3,600 employees in the bargaining unit have had the right to work on a flextime schedule. However, the panel decided that right does not apply in all circumstances. And it ruled that the department needed greater discretion in setting work schedules for individual employees.

The panel placed a cap of 64 hours on the amount of annual leave that can be "advanced" to employees at the start of a year.

The department also won more discretion on grievance procedures, contract bargaining, use of technology and other labor-management issues.

Drake said he "was very disappointed to get the decision, but not shocked."

Last year, the impasses panel signaled it favored greater management control in the workplace, ruling against AFGE Local 1923, which represents Medicare employees, on 25 of 26 contested issues.

"We are going to make the best of the situation," Drake said.

Patrick Pizzella, assistant secretary at the Labor Department, told managers and supervisors in a memo last week that the department looks forward to "a new, progressive course in our labor-management relationship" with the union.

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