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March 2019

The Front Line: Politics & Jobs
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Agency Created to Protect Federal Workers' Rights
Slams Door on Staff Union

A little-known federal agency charged with protecting the right of government workers to organize is refusing to recognize its own union.

Colleen Kiko, who was appointed by President Trump in 2017 to chair the Federal Labor Relations Authority, unilaterally terminated the staff union's contract upon its Dec. 21, 2018, expiration.

"The FLRA will not negotiate or enter into a successor agreement," Kiko said in a letter to the Union of Authority Employees, underscoring that the agency, "will not recognize the UAE or any other labor organization as an exclusive representative of the employees."

The UAE represents about 50 agency workers, mostly lawyers who handle labor-management disputes for 2.1 million non-postal federal workers, a figure that includes thousands of IBEW members employed by the federal government.

Two years after the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 established the FLRA, the agency recognized and began bargaining with the UAE. Nearly 40 years later, Kiko has seized on language in the statute permitting federal unions, arguing that it "categorically exempts" FLRA employees from the same rights that protect employees in other executive branch agencies.

"This is yet another assault on workers by an administration that has attacked unions from Day One and has abused executive orders to derail protections for federal employees," International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said.

"It's a level of contempt for workers — from the White House to Mitch McConnell and his grip on Republican senators — that led us to January's government shutdown that left 800,000 federal workers, FLRA included, panicking about paying their bills and taking care of their families."

The FLRA's work had been hampered long before the shutdown by the Trump administration's failure to nominate a general counsel, leaving the agency without anyone to prosecute unfair labor practice claims on behalf of federal employees, unions and agencies.

"People already have low morale because we're not allowed to do half of our jobs," an FLRA employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation, told Bloomberg Law. "Now, knowing what we do every day, it's more upsetting that our agency won't recognize our own union."

Kiko's argument against the union is correct to the extent that the Civil Service Reform Act did, in fact, exclude the FLRA and a handful of other agencies, including the CIA and FBI, from its worker protections. However, as the Bloomberg article explains, "the agency and its employees created a helpful workaround," one that the Justice Department affirmed in a 1980 advisory decision.

It called for FLRA to recognize UAE, while barring the union from pursuing unfair labor practice complaints through the agency, which was seen as a conflict of interest. But the union could take certain disputes to nonbinding arbitration.

One of the pitfalls, William Wiley, a former FLRA general counsel, told Bloomberg, is that the union had no way to enforce those decisions if agency leaders refused to abide by them. "It's like me recognizing my kids in a union," he said. "I can take it away from them at any time."

Still, the union has been able to win better benefits and protections for its members. In recent years, for example, the FLRA has agreed to cover lawyers' bar fees and update performance review standards.

Ernest DuBester, the only Democrat on the three-member FLRA board, told Bloomberg that while the agency isn't required by law to negotiate with the union, doing so is a matter of "modeling good behavior."

"This is not a question about whether we are mandated to recognize the union," DuBester said. "But that's a different question than, as the federal agency charged with overseeing labor management relations, why you would say we're not going to recognize the union."


In a one-two punch for employees of the Federal Labor Relations Authority, management terminated its staff union contract one day before the government shutdown began in December. The agency is charged with protecting federal workers' rights.

Canada's Building Trades Union
Pushes for Expanded Maternity Leave

A lot of attention is being paid to getting more women into construction, including a new effort in Parliament supported by Canada's Building Trades Unions.

CBTU Director of Canadian Affairs Robert R. Blakely spoke before a Senate committee in December on the importance of maternity leave for women in the building trades, where the jobs are often labor intensive.

"We want to see if there are some more effective ways to help the bright young women who opt for the trades get a fair shake when it comes to maternity issues," Blakely said.

The committee hearing was for Bill C-243, an Act Respecting the Development of a National Maternity Assistance Program Strategy. The Act aims to create a dialogue among stakeholders, including the CBTU and members like the IBEW, on what women need in order to balance maternal health and their job responsibilities. That dialogue will ultimately inform legislation to improve the leave Canada already provides.

The inspiration for the bill comes from a woman welder, Melodie Ballard, who had to stop working early into her pregnancy because of the job hazards. It ultimately left her without any income for more than two months, reported the CBC.

"This is much-needed legislation that will improve the lives of both union and nonunion workers. It's good for all Canadians," said First District Vice President Tom Reid.

Canada currently offers 15 weeks of maternity benefits for pregnant women, 12 of which can be paid before the expected due date, according to the government's website. Benefits can also be paid as late as 17 weeks after. Additionally, new parents can get 35 paid weeks within a year of either giving birth or for adoption purposes, with the option of extended benefits for a maximum of 61 weeks.

Employers are required to accept employees back into their jobs, or the equivalent, at the end of their leave at the same rate of pay and with the same benefits.

As more and more baby boomers retire, there's an increasing demand for more tradespeople. Currently, women only comprise about 4 percent of the skilled trades in Canada, reported the Journal of Commerce.

But unlike many other jobs, the construction trades are often physically demanding and can involve exposure to toxic chemicals and gases, making them inhospitable for someone who's pregnant.

Dr. Nicola Cherry, a professor at the University of Alberta, presented findings from studies with pregnant women in the welding and electrical trades.

"It is very suggestive that women working in the trades are more likely to have a spontaneous abortion and that is true for both trades and particularly in fact for women in Alberta working in welding where the type of work they do is rather different than in perhaps Ontario," Cherry said. "Having said that, we don't find any evidence that women working in these trades have smaller babies, more premature babies, so if they get through the first three months the babies they produce seem to be just as healthy as those who are not working in those trades or who stopped work."

Matt Wayland, First District executive assistant to the vice president and director of government relations, says this is a great opportunity for women's committees to get involved and support the legislation. He encourages IBEW members to contact their members of Parliament.

"This is an opportunity for the government to set an example of good policy for our sisters in the workforce," Wayland said. "No one should have to choose between their health and a paycheck."

One policy that will likely be considered is that of the Iron Workers. The union, which has members in the U.S. and Canada, announced in 2017 that it was offering six months of leave that can be taken prior to delivery followed by six weeks post-delivery, or eight weeks for a cesarean delivery. The policy is the first of its kind in the building trades, according to a statement by the union.

"When we first started talking about it, I wasn't sure how we'd pull it off and what it would cost, but we realized that it's an investment because we want our well-trained ironworker women to come back to work," said Ben Hur Construction Co. CEO Bill Brown in the Iron Workers statement.

In the U.S., maternity leave is much harder to come by and primarily left to individual employers and states. At the federal level, most women can use the Family Medical Leave Act, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave.