The Government Accountability Office is set to challenge the eligibility of one-third of employees who are seeking to form a union, a move that could delay an authorizing election that had been expected to take place this summer, union officials said.
The GAO also is searching for outside legal counsel to help out during the unionization process, an action union officials said delays the agency in reaching agreement on basic issues surrounding the election, further hindering the process.
“We are very disappointed that GAO management has decided to launch this very broad-based challenge,” said Julia Akins Clark, general counsel for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which is seeking to represent the employees. “It’s not a challenge that is in the best interest of the agency in our view, or the taxpayers, or Congress.”
A majority of GAO analysts filed a petition with the agency’s Personnel Appeals Board in early May to hold a union authorizing election.
The effort began after Comptroller General David Walker initiated a revamped pay structure that divided GAO analysts into “bands,” capping salaries and denying cost-of-living raises to hundreds of employees.
Walker has maintained the system provides an improved way to measure employee performance, while many analysts claim the new method is confusing and unfair to older and minority employees.
Union officials and GAO management met last week with the appeals board to hash out issues related to the authorizing election, Clark said. The parties were unable to move forward because the GAO’s representative, Barbara Simball, said the agency could not act until outside counsel had been obtained, Clark added.
Such representation is needed to provide “advice and assistance on these matters,” GAO spokesman Paul Anderson said, adding the agency hopes to announce a pick by the end of the week.
GAO officials also announced at last week’s meeting that they will challenge the eligibility of 461 of the 1,386 employees the union is seeking to represent, Clark said.
The agency believes the employees simply are not eligible for union representation under labor laws, Anderson said.
“This issue will be resolved by the Personnel Appeals Board in the normal course,” he said.
It is difficult to determine how long the election would be delayed if such an investigation took place, Clark said.
“It’s hard to begin to even estimate if we had to get testimony from 461 people,” she said. “There’s no question it would be a lengthy process.”
Despite the challenge, Clark said she is confident the employees are eligible for representation because of the lengthy investigation the union took when it decided to move to represent GAO analysts.
The IFPTE excluded from the unionization effort about 330 analysts who were placed in the “Band III” pay category, Clark said, because those workers serve in supervisory roles and it is unclear if they were eligible to join.
“We were very conservative in our definition of who was eligible and who was not,” she said.
Union spokesman Jamie Horwitz labeled the GAO’s argument as “really over the top.” If the 461 employees are not eligible for representation because they are considered supervisors, there would be an almost one-to-one ratio among managers to employees, Horwitz said.
Clark said she also does not understand why the GAO would seek to bring in outside representation, especially since the agency maintains a fleet of legal help already.
“It’s really not the usual practice for something that is so routine as labor relations,” Clark said.
She later added: “Frankly, I think it’s probably not a benefit, because it’s such a costly matter. But that’s not for me to decide.”
Still, it is possible things can move forward quickly, Clark said.
Clark wrote to appeals board General Counsel Anne Wagner last week to ask that the office “use its best efforts to clearly identify areas of agreement and disagreement, and seek to narrow the issues in dispute, with the aim of moving the petition expeditiously to an election.”
“We’re in a limbo stage,” Clark said. “We’re prepared to meet as soon as she calls.”