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GAO Hires Law Firm for Advice in Unionization Bid

Comptroller General David Walker officially announced last week that the Government Accountability Office has hired the law firm Venable to provide advice during unionization proceedings at the agency.

“We need this outside legal expertise because, while GAO has a number of excellent attorneys on its staff, they have limited directly relevant experience in labor relations,” Walker said in a statement. “At the same time, GAO plans to use its in-house legal capabilities to the maximum extent possible. We would like to move the process along expeditiously.”

Venable, which has offices in Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore and other cities, practices in a variety of areas, from corporate and business law to government affairs. A firm spokesman declined to comment on the GAO case itself late Friday afternoon, but did confirm that partner Robert Ames would be handling the matter.

Ames has more than 30 years of experience in law, representing public and private sector employers in labor relations and employment matters. He also has served as a chief negotiator in collective bargaining agreements and employee discrimination cases, according to his Venable biography.

On the firm’s Web site, Ames lists among his client benefits a track record for negotiating “labor contracts incorporating merit pay concepts and other cost containment features.” Ames also is included in the 2007 edition of “The Best Lawyers in America” for his work in labor and employment law.

A majority of the GAO’s 1,500 analysts filed a petition with the agency’s Personnel Appeals Board on May 8 to hold an election to determine if certain employees have the right to join the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

The unionization effort began after Walker restructured the agency’s pay system, placing workers into groups known as “bands,” denying raises to some and capping salaries for others. Walker repeatedly has defended his actions, arguing the new method provides a more market-based way to measure employee performance.

Union officials remained concerned last week that the agency’s move to hire an outside firm has unnecessarily delayed the election, which was expected to be held this summer.

GAO management met with union representatives and the appeals board on May 30 to hash out issues related to the authorizing election, said Julia Akins Clark, the union’s general counsel. At that meeting, the GAO’s representative announced that the agency planned to challenge about one-third of the petitions, arguing those workers should not be included in the bargaining unit because they serve in supervisory roles, Clark said.

That move raised they ire of union officials, who said Friday that they worked to ensure that every employee who filed a petition legally would be allowed to join the union.

“Really, we have prepared from the beginning for this,” Clark said. “We did that by doing a thorough investigation of the unique work done by GAO, coming up with a very conservative and defensive definition of the employee group, and excluding from that group hundreds of analysts whose supervisory status was simply not clear.”

Friday marked the one-month anniversary of the petition filing, Clark noted. In the appeals board’s tentative timetable for the election, June 8 should have been the day when appeals board general counsel Anne Wagner released her issue report and recommendations, Clark said.

“Instead, we’re still waiting just to complete the preliminary meeting,” Clark added.

One analyst involved in the union effort said this struggle likely will determine, when an election is eventually held, if GAO employees decide to join the IFPTE.

“We’ll go ahead and vote for it if Julie Clark and if IFPTE prove their mettle by fighting Venable,” said the analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

GAO workers see the hiring of Venable simply as a stall tactic meant to weaken the overall union effort, the analyst said.

“You no longer hire people to bust up the picket lines,” he said. “You hire people with fancy suits and nice-looking briefcases.”

Union spokesman Jamie Horwitz said GAO’s move to hire outside counsel is highly unusual for a labor matter — especially considering the additional cost.

While Walker did not release the exact financial cost of hiring the firm, he did say Venable’s best estimate cost would be less than the annual compensation for a senior-level attorney in the federal government. Venable will be paid on an hourly basis, with a minimum of 100 hours and a best estimate of 250 hours.

Salaries for veteran attorneys vary by jurisdiction and a variety of other factors. According to the Department of Justice, federal attorneys with four or more years experience earn $91,507 to $139,774 per year.

If a bargaining unit eventually is formed, the GAO would develop in-house legal expertise to keep costs low over the long term, Walker said.

Clark said she hopes the union vote will be held this summer, so logistics about the actual unionization process can be worked out during the August recess.

“It would be a much more efficient use of downtime,” Clark said. “Leave everyone in a better place … when Congress returns in the fall.”

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