A public employees union tried to unionize student interns at a federal agency against their will to boost its membership.
The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) wanted to turn interns at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) into members of the collective bargaining unit, even though it had previously agreed interns are “expressly excluded” under the labor agreement with the agency.
Normally, becoming part of a union involves an election asking whether workers are supportive, but the union fought to prevent an election that would have asked the interns whether they even wanted to join.
Despite the clear exclusion language, the union managed to appeal the case all the way up to the top panel of the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA).
Since the rules say people “specifically excluded from the unit description in a bargaining certificate… may only be accreted into that unit where there have been ‘meaningful changes’ in the employees’ duties, functions, or job circumstances that eliminate the original distinctions between employees,” the union argued that interns’ job circumstances have changed.
The change did not involve duties, but rather expectations: Federal employment has become such an interminable gravy train, the union argued, that even college students had an expectation that they could remain at the agency for as long as they wanted.
As the FLRA wrote, there was “an agreement between the agency and the union to exclude student interns,” but “Subsequently, the union filed the petition at issue here to clarify the unit to include twenty-seven student interns. In its petition, the union argued that the interns should be included ‘without an election’… because there have been meaningful changes in interns’ job circumstances, as interns have recently developed an ‘expectation of continued employment’ at the agency. In response, the agency argued that student interns do not have an expectation of continued employment.”
FLRA labor arbiter Barbara Kraft denied the complaint, saying it was obvious that the distinction between interns and employees had not been eliminated. The union complained that she didn’t conduct a detailed analysis, and appealed it to the full FLRA panel.
That panel said despite the obvious conclusion — as Kraft put it, interns becoming employees “could not have occurred” — union rules required her to undertake this exercise. The union said she should have held a hearing on it, but Kraft said it never asked for a hearing. The FLRA’s top panel agreed that she had “broad discretion to determine whether a hearing is necessary.”
FLRA also ignored the union’s pleas to block an election that would ask interns if they had any interest in joining. “The union argues that an election could result in fragmentation that would violate the statute,” the FLRA wrote, but “we do not consider it at this time.”
Yet instead of shutting down the union’s arguments entirely, it sent the case back to Kraft and instructed her to spend more time on it.
The case occurred in 2014, but has gone previously unreported. The case highlights continuing efforts by federal employee unions to ensure that seemingly no one, including interns, is terminated by the government for bad behavior. (RELATED: Union Says Criminal Charges, Video Of Member Stealing From Gov Isn’t Enough Proof For Discipline)
At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, an intern stole a housing project unit and rented it out to her sister, then lied about it to law enforcement, yet she went to the union for protection and was almost immediately hired full-time and put in charge of millions of dollars in grants.
The FLRA is comprised of three arbitrators. Patrick Pizzella, the only Republican to hear the case, wrote a dissent focusing on the efforts to unionize people without their seeking it, given that federal law allows people to “refrain from any such activity.”
He wrote that without an election, “the union never has to demonstrate even a minimal showing of interest and avoids the inconvenience of facing a secret-ballot election. (RELATED: FLRA Says How VA Employees’ Bonuses Can’t Be Tied To Patients’ Feedback)
“The employees, who will be directly impacted by the outcome, are effectively excluded from all phases of the process and are provided no opportunity whatsoever to vote for, or against, representation… their concerns are not sought or even considered.”
A spokesman for NTEU did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokesman for the FDIC could not say whether the interns ever wound up being unionized.
In a separate case, the FLRA concluded that NTEU conducted “unfair labor practices” against its own members. It gave preference to an employee active in the union leadership over rank-and-file members.
Robert Cauldwell was handpicked by NTEU national leadership to run the Washington, D.C., chapter where that occurred, but he was reviled as a dictator and eventually voted out by members.
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