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When the first round of votes was counted in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s unionization drive this July, the dozens of agency employees watching the count erupted into whoops and shouts when the numbers were read. They hugged each other, realizing the union was going to be approved. They jumped up and down, looked in each other’s eyes, and shouted, “We kicked butt!” It was a hard-fought victory for the pro-union employees of the SEC, who lasted through a bruising battle to create a union that represents a good chunk of the agency’s 2,900 employees-from document examiners to administrative assistants to accountants and attorneys. Lawyers, in fact, were a big part of the push to get the agency unionized. One of the leaders was Michael Clampitt, who has worked as both an accountant and a lawyer for the SEC since starting at the agency in 1992. Clampitt has been a frequent critic of the agency, a fact that he admits has not made him the most popular figure in management circles. He saw a lack of respect, dignity, and fair treatment for staff members and said he was bothered by seemingly arbitrary management decisions. By fall 1998, Clampitt says, he realized the only way to fix those problems was to unionize. “It was basically a law firm culture, but without law firm pay or the law firm support staff,” Clampitt says of the working conditions in the agency. “The hours, the abuse, the treatment of the workers by management here.” Clampitt is only one of the most recent in a long line of government professionals who have seen the benefits of collective bargaining when it comes to working in government service. Dozens of agencies, offices, and divisions throughout the federal bureaucracy are represented by unions. And attorneys are often among those groups-as part of either their own counsel’s office union or an agencywide union. The Justice Department may be following suit. The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) is trying to organize a union drive at the agency. ORGANIZING FOR CHANGE At first glance, lawyers hardly seem like a group that’s suffering too badly from a lack of union representation. After all, in private practice, first-year associates at big firms got their salaries raised to $125,000 last year-and they didn’t even have to go on strike to get that. But in the federal workplace, attorneys are pretty much like any other staff member with decent pay but little responsibility or self-determination. They complain about time sheets, arbitrary bonus awards, and a lack of compensation of any kind for overtime hours. Unions start to make a lot of sense to these attorneys when organizers make the case that they can change those conditions. “Professionals are having more and more issues on the job, and more and more concerns that they cannot address individually,” says Peter Winch, one of the national union organizers at the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), who specializes in working with professional groups. “They are looking at what is out there and they are realizing there is a tool they can use-the union.” Most federal employees are part of either the AFGE or the NTEU. Both specialize in unionizing and representing federal government employees, which carries its own complications and difficulties. The unions representing federal employees can’t go in and promise an immediate $3-an-hour pay raise. Most government employees are paid according to the standard government pay scale, and to raise pay for one agency requires raising pay for the entire government service. The unions do promise to advocate for governmentwide pay increases and employ Capitol Hill lobbyists to accomplish that task. But what the AFGE and NTEU really sell to prospective union members is a change in lifestyle. The unions work to get improvements like transit subsidies, flex-time work schedules, telecommuting, and on-site child care into the employees’ contract with the agency. The federal government has already authorized many of these options for federal sector employees. But union members complain that before they organized, many agencies didn’t offer those options. “They had put [flexible work schedules] in some divisions, but other divisions didn’t have it,” says Warren Joseph, a trial attorney with the income tax and accounting division of chief counsel’s office at the Internal Revenue Service and president of local chapter 251 of the NTEU. The D.C. office, where Joseph works, has been unionized since 1987. “The conditions were not subject to controls of any kind. Now having it by a matter of right is something that is a major selling point of the agency.” UNCOMPENSATED OVERTIME Overtime pay and compensation hours are also a major factor in agency employees’ drive to unionize. Many attorney union members say their department or agency effectively required them to work longer work hours, with out-of-town trials or training sessions, but didn’t pay them anything additional. “We put in tremendous hours, as all professionals do, and we weren’t compensated for it,” says John Aletta, an attorney in the IRS chief counsel’s office in Hartford, Conn. “If we wanted to leave the office 10 minutes early on Friday after working a 70-hour week, we were docked for it.” One of the first actions the NTEU took after organizing the counsel field offices in 1999 was to file an overtime suit against the IRS. The suit, which bears Aletta’s name as one of the lead plaintiffs, is not the only such litigation. Attorneys in the Justice Department are also pursuing an overtime case. That case is seen as one of the reasons why the attorneys may be ripe for unionization. What that will take, as it has taken at all the other agencies, is enough employees willing to make the push for the union from the inside. FROM CAMPAIGN TO CONTRACT The unions will sometimes start a union campaign at a specific agency or department for strategic reasons-such as when only one division lacks union representation in an entire agency. But more frequently, campaigns are started after several employees express interest to the union. It takes just a few who get fed up enough to start looking around for other options. “Over the years, I had witnessed directly and indirectly a lot of mismanagement and a lot of unfairness,” says Shelley Van Doran about her experience working for union representation at the field offices of IRS chief counsel. From her office in Dallas, Van Doran joined the efforts of Aletta and others to bring in a union. “It seemed I had two options: One was to become proactive and another was to leave the government entirely. It’s pretty sad when you feel your only option to better your life is to leave government service.” Once union leaders think there is enough interest, they work to set up a certification vote. A majority of employees in the potential bargaining unit has to vote in favor of the union in order for it to set up shop. Once voted in, the union elects officers and stewards, and establishes membership dues. Union officials then get to work negotiating a contract that will cover the entire potential bargaining pool for several years. Unionization experiences differ. Some organizers run into resistance from the agency during the campaign, which fades away after the union settles in. Others find problems arise once the union starts making serious demands for rights and worker rewards. “This whole process has been a struggle,” says Robert Young, an attorney and physician who has worked at the Food and Drug Administration for 26 years and is president of the agency’s two-year-old union. “The agency has not been union- or employee-friendly in the whole matter since the vote. Maybe I am not realistic. I should have known this would be like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill.” The union is not always viewed as the best thing. Management worries about productivity and work product when the union asks for changed schedules and revamped evaluation and bonus award procedures. Some managers, accustomed to running their own division, are reluctant to place management control in the hands of a union. In those agencies that have been unionized for a number of years, members say the union and management eventually learned to work well together. In the eyes of the SEC’s newest union members, that day hasn’t arrived yet. For now, the two groups are still in the process of finding a way to make the new union work. “It’s going to turn bad before it turns better,” says Clampitt. “It’s going to take a contract going through, it’s going to take a lot of legal grievances, and eventually, it’s going to change.”

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