DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE RURAL DEVELOPMENT RURAL HOUSING CENTRALIZED SERVICING CENTER ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI and LOCAL 3354, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO
In the Matter of
DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
RURAL HOUSING CENTRALIZED SERVICING
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI
Case No. 98 FSIP 143
LOCAL 3354, AMERICAN FEDERATION
OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO
ARBITRATOR’S OPINION AND DECISION
Local 3354, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), AFL-CIO (Union), filed a request for assistance with the Federal Service Impasses Panel (Panel) to consider a negotiation impasse under section 7119 of the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute between it and the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development, Rural Housing Centralized Servicing Center (CSC), St. Louis, Missouri (Employer). After investigation of the request for assistance,(1) the Panel asserted jurisdiction and directed the parties to expedited arbitration(2) by telephone with the undersigned.
Accordingly, on September 1, 1998, I conducted an arbitration hearing by telephone with the parties’ representatives. Each side presented arguments and evidence in support of its position. I have considered the entire record, including the Employer’s prehearing brief. The record is now closed.
The Employer provides loans, at reasonable rates and terms, to rural residents and communities unable to obtain credit from commercial sources, and processes the mortgage loans for individual customers. The Union represents a bargaining-unit of approximately 500 employees, who work in loan processing, customer service, and clerical positions, at grades GS-3 through GS-11. The parties have agreed to ground rules which will govern negotiations over their initial collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Those negotiations are to begin later this month.(3)
The parties disagree over whether bargaining-unit employees should be granted ½ hour of administrative leave in conjunction with their ½-hour lunch to attend monthly Union meetings.
1. The Employer’s Position
The Employer would have the undersigned order the Union to withdraw its proposal so that the status quo is maintained. In this regard, the Settlement Agreement contains provisions granting official time to Union representatives and affected employees whenever changes in working conditions are proposed. The Employer also has a practice of approving requests for time for the Union to meet with affected bargaining-unit employees on an ad hoc, issue-by-issue, basis. While the current practices are sufficient to meet the Union’s needs, it is nevertheless willing to assist the Union in procuring facilities for meetings during other than duty hours to make the meetings more convenient for employees to attend.
The Employer estimates that the Union’s proposal would cost $57,510 per year if implemented. The associated reduction in productive time would exacerbate the backlog of work to be accomplished as well as negatively impact the quality of customer service. These adverse affects are particularly relevant in view of the fact that the CSC has been under constant threat of privatization since its inception, and intense Congressional scrutiny. In addition, there is no demonstrated need for the Union’s proposal because it has alternative methods for communicating with unit employees during nonduty times. The Employer should not be forced to assume the costs of what appears to be an internal Union problem by giving it a "blank check." With regard to comparability data, the Union has failed to identify Federal, public, or private sector precedent to support its proposal. The one current agreement it references, where the parties have a similar practice, was implemented through partnership, and authorizes administrative leave for the sole purposes articulated in Executive Order 12871, i.e., improving mission accomplishment and customer service. Moreover, because it was implemented on a trial basis, it is not a permanent binding agreement on the Agency. The "lunch and learn" provision the Union alluded to during the arbitration procedure, contained in an expired agreement involving the Farmers Home Administration (FHA) is also unavailing because it served a different purpose than the Union proposal here.
Finally, the Employer has concerns regarding whether the amount of duty time being requested is reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest, as required by section 7131(d) of the Statute. It also fears that the time will be used for internal Union business, in violation of section 7131(b). This belief is based on oral and written information provided by the Union during the parties’ discussions over the proposal. The Employer has a responsibility to the taxpayer to use its resources properly, and to fulfill its obligations under the law to ensure that internal activities do not occur during duty time.
2. Union’s Position
The Union proposes the following wording:
Bargaining-unit employees of the Rural Housing Centralized Servicing Center may, upon request, use ½-hour administrative leave in conjunction with their lunch period in order to attend monthly meetings of AFGE Local 3354. In order to accommodate the business needs of CSC, the Union agrees to hold four different meetings each month, as follows:
11 a.m. to 12 noon
12 noon to 1 p.m.
Third Tuesday of the Month
11 a.m. to 12 noon
12 noon to 1 p.m.
Third Thursday of the Month
Management agrees to reserve Room 1612 [or other available room] during these time frames each month for these meetings.
In addition, because of the importance of receiving feedback from bargaining-unit employees during the parties’ initial CBA negotiations, it is also willing to implement the proposal on an experimental basis only through that period. Its goal is to complete the negotiations by December 31, 1998.
With respect to cost, the Employer’s estimate is overstated; based on its past experience regarding the attendance of employees at Union meetings, $10,000 is a more realistic figure. Furthermore, the benefits of its proposal outweigh its costs. In this regard, giving employees an incentive to provide input in workplace matters is consistent with the goals espoused in Executive Order 12871. The Employer’s refusal to continue the practice after implementing it briefly in September 1997 is reflective of its outdated "command and control" approach to labor relations. This approach, however, is "penny-wise and pound foolish," because providing a routine mechanism for employee input will alleviate the need for official time which occurs now as the parties operate in the ad hoc manner preferred by the Employer.
Although the Union acknowledges that having a third party impose its proposal would be less than ideal, the fact that members in another unit that it represents currently receive administrative leave to meet with the Union demonstrates that the idea has merit. Finally, the fact that FHA’s now-defunct contract also contained a provision granting bargaining-unit employees (approximately 100 of whom transferred over to CSC) ½ hour of administrative leave twice per year to attend "lunch and learn" sessions provides additional support for its proposal.
Having carefully reviewed the parties’ positions on this issue, I find that the Union has failed to demonstrate the need for its original proposal. The history of the parties’ negotiations over this matter indicates that the idea of providing administrative leave to bargaining-unit employees to attend monthly Union meetings initially arose because a similar practice had been established in a collocated Department of Agriculture entity whose employees are also represented by the Union. As the Employer points out, that practice is the product of a consensus reached through partnership, and is limited to the items discussed at partnership council meetings. In my view, its existence provides little support for the Union’s original proposal in this case, which arose through traditional collective bargaining. The proposal also appears anachronistic, given that the parties recently agreed to form a partnership. In these circumstances, imposing it on the Employer could actually interfere with the parties’ ongoing efforts to strengthen their relationship.
The previous points notwithstanding, I believe that one of the arguments raised by the Union in support of its proposal has merit, and justifies the imposition of a compromise solution to the impasse. In this regard, the parties are about to begin negotiations over their initial CBA. I am persuaded that providing unit employees with additional incentive to attend the Union’s monthly meetings for the limited purpose of discussing the status of the ongoing negotiations and providing feedback concerning their interests would be of benefit to both parties. In my view, because the Employer has an interest in seeing that the negotiations are completed successfully, it is also consistent with its current practice of approving requests for time for the Union to meet with employees on an ad hoc basis. Keeping in mind the realities of Federal sector collective bargaining, however, I am unwilling to extend the granting of administrative leave through the entire period of the negotiations, as the Union suggests. Rather, the compromise presented below will limit such grants to the months of October, November, and December 1998, in accordance with the goal for completion of the negotiations expressed by the Union. Moreover, by including a requirement that the Union publish an agenda in advance of such meetings restricting the subjects of discussion to the status of the ongoing CBA negotiations, the Employer’s obligation to ensure that internal Union activities do not occur during duty time is also adequately addressed.