The dispute flared again this month when an arbitrator ruled that the CBP should bargain with union locals on such issues as shift hours, overtime and communications with employees on grievances and personnel policies.
The ruling came in a case brought by American Federation of Government Employees Local 1917 on behalf of CBP employees at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. They are mostly legacy employees from the old Immigration and Naturalization Service and are covered by a contract negotiated by the Justice Department in 2000.
"We see it as a big win because CBP has been running roughshod over locals," said S tephen Weekes , the AFGE local president.
Lynn Hollinger , a CBP spokeswoman, said the agency's management "is concerned at the potential negative effect of the decision on its continuing efforts to meet the 'one face at the border' objective" -- part of a reorganization that has consolidated the jobs of immigration, customs and agriculture inspectors and put them under one chain of command at ports of entry.
CBP port directors "need consistent shift schedules for their officers and the authority to manage work assignments as circumstances require in order to flexibly support our mission to protect the country against terrorist threats," Hollinger said in a statement.
During the debate over how best to structure the department, President Bush said the administration did not want to bargain over work assignments. In an October 2002 speech in Bangor, Maine, Bush said that negotiations with unions take too long and that "I need the right to be able to put the right people at the right place at the right time to protect America."
Federal unions agree that agency managers have the authority to act immediately in emergency situations without regard to contracts, and the unions point out that managers have such flexibility under current labor law.
But the administration has contended that some situations may be critical without meeting the definition of emergency. The administration fears some managers might be hesitant to act.
The CBP contends that the AFGE's contract and other labor agreements have been overridden by a presidential directive and by a national policy on assigning inspectors that was issued in 2001. That stance has prompted dozens of grievances from the AFGE, said Enid Doggett , the union's spokeswoman. The National Treasury Employees Union, which also represents CBP officers, has challenged the agency for refusing to negotiate over work assignments.
Hollinger said the CBP has prevailed in the majority of cases. One of the cases is on appeal in federal court, the NTEU said.
The CBP has put the legacy immigration inspectors and former customs officials on similar shift schedules, thinking that uniformity would improve morale and reduce turnover, Weekes said. But he said immigration inspectors at JFK Airport do not believe they have received fair treatment in the consolidation of duties under the "one face" initiative.
"It's really hard to teach an old dog new tricks," Weekes acknowledged, but he faulted Homeland Security officials for "not listening to the employees on the ground and asking them how can this work."
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