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Union Vote Expected at GAO

The union hoping to organize analysts at the Government Accountability Office is expected to announce today that it has gathered enough signatures to hold an authorizing election.

Officials from the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers said Monday they had gathered more than 750 signed cards from eligible employees who want to vote on whether to unionize. An election likely would take place within 90 days and 1,500 GAO analysts would be eligible to vote, union officials said.

“It’s been very consistent and very steady and actually growing in momentum,” Paul Shearon, secretary-treasurer of the IFPTE, said of the unionization effort.

“What they do in writing their reports and doing their studies is consistent with what they did with this campaign,” Shearon added.

Comptroller General David Walker, who heads the agency, declined to comment Monday on a potential unionization election, saying in a statement that “if and when they do file, we will make a comment once we have had an opportunity to review the petition.”

But in past interviews, Walker has said the effort is being led by a small group of employees who are upset after the organization switched to a market-based, performance-driven pay system.

“There were a lot more winners in our new system than people who don’t deem themselves to be winners,” Walker said in April. “You’re going to take some flak, and you can’t make everybody happy.”

Charged with auditing, evaluating and investigating the activities and policies of government agencies, the GAO commonly is referred to as Congress’ official watchdog. Its employee structure is held up as a model, and GAO employees never have formed a union in the 86-year history of the agency.

But if workers vote to join the union, 1,500 analysts in Washington, D.C., and field offices across the country would be eligible for representation with the IFPTE. The union is affiliated with the AFL-CIO and also represents workers at the Congressional Research Service.

Employees at other legislative branch agencies, including the Library of Congress and Government Printing Office, also have union representation, although not necessarily with the IFPTE.

The unionization effort began at the GAO about a year ago when a group of employees approached the IFPTE about forming a union organizing committee.

Talk of creating a union primarily was prompted by the change in employee pay structure to a pay-for-performance system, which organizers said unfairly harmed minority and older analysts and wounded employee morale.

A study of the previous pay system conducted by the firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide found that hundreds of analysts were overpaid. As a result, some analysts saw their salaries frozen and were denied raises.

Employees also were split into two pay grades, labeled Band IIA and Band IIB. Salaries for workers in Band IIA were capped lower than their colleagues in Band IIB, which some analysts said served as a catalyst to create sinking morale.

“What’s the difference? It’s not clear. It’s a distinction without a difference,” said senior analyst Judy Knepper, whose pay was not affected by the split. “It hurts many of us when we see so many of our colleagues we believe of the same professional caliber as we are being put in IIA.”

Walker and other GAO officials have maintained the change helped most employees while also trimming costs.

But it’s not just about the salary structure.

Analysts are seeking to form a union so employees will have a stronger voice in future administrative matters at the agency, several analysts said.

“What we need here is to have a kind of organization with legs,” Knepper said. “An organization that can actually say, ‘Look, we want a contract. We want to negotiate these things with you. We care about this agency.’”

Added Senior Analyst Charles Egan: “We would have a whole group of people who get together and collectively decide, ‘This is a good idea.’ It carries much more weight with Mr. Walker.”

Walker has said he would not stand in the way of any union effort, and union officials predicted the election process should be done quickly and without incident.

Organizers said they are confident employees will vote to form a union and are hopeful if analysts decide to go ahead with unionization, Walker and others will respond positively.

Many of GAO’s own reports even argue that unionization can help foster positive relationships between management and employees, said Julia Akins Clark, general counsel for the IFPTE.

For their part, several Members of Congress have sent Walker letters urging him to remain neutral in the unionization process, and many released statements supporting the election.

“If GAO’s employees feel that union representation will help them to do their jobs better and make them feel happier and more secure in their careers, I certainly support their right to join the [IFPTE] or any other union,” Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) said.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said Members would be monitoring the election process closely to ensure it is conducted in a fair and prompt manner.

“I am glad to hear that the organization process has reached a point where a union election can be held today,” Lewis said. “GAO is an important government agency, and it can set an example for other institutions of government and industry. It can demonstrate that the empowerment of employees can benefit the well-being of any organization as a whole.”

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