SSA commissioner defends spending on union activity Chater cites benefits of labor partnership

June 28, 1996|By John M. Biers | John M. Biers,STATES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Officials of the Social Security Administration stoutly defended the agency yesterday against criticism that more and more taxpayer money is being used to pay salaries of employees whose work time is devoted to union activity.

House Republicans have cited a report by the General Accounting Office showing that the annual government cost of union activities at the Woodlawn-based SSA more than doubled since 1993, to $12.6 million last year.

Critics say that at a time when many Americans are fearful that Social Security will eventually run out of money, the agency should hardly be spending more money on union activity.

But Social Security and union officials argue that the busier union work actually reflects the use of labor-management partnerships that are streamlining the agency's work and ultimately will save the government money.

Testifying at a House subcommittee hearing yesterday, Commissioner Shirley S. Chater said the union plays a vital role as the agency downsizes, improves customer service and disposes of a huge backlog of disability claims.

"The union helps us set up a cooperative relationship," Chater said.

"If we didn't have a union, we would be paying employees [anyway] to do much of what the union does now."

Labor-management partnerships, she noted, exist governmentwide, part of a Clinton administration plan to make agencies more efficient.

The GAO report, released at a hearing earlier this month, noted that since 1993, the number of Social Security employees who work full time on union activities had jumped from 80 to 146. About 1,800 others are authorized to spend some time on union activity.

Rep. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, who is chairman of the subcommittee and has led the Republican criticism of the agency, has conceded that the practice of paying employees for union activity is legal and exists at other agencies.

But, he added yesterday, "It's hard to explain to the people back home in Kentucky that they are paying Social Security taxes to pay into a trust fund that can be used to pay for union activists on union-related work."

Chater suggested, however, that the unions are a vital tool to the agency's management. For example, she said, as Social Security reorganizes to automate its claims process and trains more workers to handle the customer-service 800 number, it looks increasingly to the union for help.

By having management and labor meet more regularly, the agency says, it has saved about $7 million a year in unfair-labor charges. Another byproduct, Chater said, is speedier processing of disability claims and assigning of Social Security numbers.

Chater also took issue with Republicans' use of the term "union activity," which, she said, has been applied too broadly. She noted that union members cannot use work time to organize workers or conduct political activity.

Pub Date: 6/28/96

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