Employees accept unpopular contract at Social Security


July 15, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

THOUSANDS OF Social Security Administration workers approved a four-year labor contract this week, ending months of negotiations that deeply divided employees and caused them to reject an identical proposal on the first go-round, the chief negotiator for the union said.

Social Security spokesman Mark Lassiter said that the agency would not comment on the changes until it completed a 30-day review of the contract and leaders signed it.

Federal workers cannot strike. When management and employees reach a stalemate - as SSA did after employees first rejected the plan - disputes can be taken to the Federal Service Impasse Panel, a neutral third party.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of incomplete information provided to The Sun, an article in Friday's Federal Workers column incorrectly characterized the nature of last week's vote approving a four-year labor contract between the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration and members of its union, the American Federation of Government Employees.
The vote included only leaders within the four divisions of the union that previously had rejected the contract. The union's general membership did not participate.
The Sun regrets the error.

Mark Roth, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, said that since President Bush fired all seven of the impasse panel's Clinton-appointed members in January 2002 and replaced them, seeking a ruling from the panel would not have provided employees any relief.

In the seven rulings posted on its Web site from this year, the panel has sided with management in all but one, according to a Sun review.

"The panel is at its lowest point in credibility and fairness," Roth said. "Workers were compelled to revote and approve it, and even then the margin was thin."

A spokeswoman for the panel said that each case is handled on its own merits and that a tally of agency versus union victories is not kept.

"When we went back to the bargaining table after the contract was rejected, management was unwilling to discuss any changes, and even if they did, we weren't sure it would be ratified," Roth said. "Management viewed this as a take-back contract - that under this administration, they were going to get rights back."

Roth said the most controversial points of the contract include:

Replacing the pass/fail performance evaluation system with a tiered, three-step rating. The union's concern is that the contract permits supervisors to create their own performance standards and that the union cannot become involved in a worker's objection to a rating until after a formal grievance has been filed.

The end of rosters that rotate overtime opportunities among employees. Under the contract, managers may pick the employees that whom want to fill extra shifts.

No longer guaranteeing "priority consideration" for minority applicants and those who have repeatedly failed to get promotions despite strong qualifications.

Although management retains these rights, Roth said, he was not sure they would be implemented. Removing the overtime roster and creating varying performance standards between departments could generate unwanted grievances and headaches for management, he said.

Roth also said he hoped that officials and union members would restart talks away from the pressure of the bargaining table, to ease hurt feelings.

On Pentagon changes

Hundreds of federal workers took to Washington's streets Tuesday to protest personnel changes scheduled for the Pentagon this year.

AFGE, the country's largest federal union, organized the event to encourage members of Congress to block changes that would replace the General Schedule with a pay-for-performance system and limit collective bargaining.

News releases promoted the protest as including workers from every federal agency and also addressing changes coming to the Department of Homeland Security. But leaders of the National Treasury Employees Union, AFGE's partner in some of the court filings to stop the changes, were not invited.

Talks between the unions over representation of customs and border protection employees at DHS broke down last month. A vote by workers to select their union should take place by the end of the year.

AFGE spokeswoman Enid Doggett said the dispute had not stopped the union from building an even broader labor coalition for the rally, adding that the rally focused only on changes at the Pentagon, where the work force is not represented by the NTEU.

"The United Department of Defense Workers Coalition sponsored the rally," she said. The NTEU "isn't part of the coalition or the AFL-CIO."

The writer welcomes your comments and story ideas. She can be reached at melissa. harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Back issues of Federal Workers can be accessed at www.baltimore sun.com/federal.

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