NASA Employee Given the Runaround by Own Union

Attempt to decertify union runs into bureaucratic roadblock
NASA's Space Shuttle Atlantis / AP

NASA's Space Shuttle Atlantis / AP

BY:

A public sector union used dirty stalling tactics to thwart a secret ballot election that threatened its control of a Virginia NASA facility, according to legal briefs filed with a national labor arbiter.

Ron Walsh worked as a flight project manager at NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility for more than 10 years before he became disillusioned with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), a public sector union that represents 650,000 federal employees.

He was tired of having to communicate to his superiors through union intermediaries, rather than just approaching management himself, didn’t appreciate the unfounded accusations of racism at the facility, and supported an employee evaluation system that would bring bonuses to his department only to see AFGE objections hinder efforts to reward effective workers.

Walsh said he was also frustrated by the fact that he had never voted to unionize in the first place.

Workers at the NASA facility voted to join AFGE in 1971. Over the next 40 years AFGE shifted responsibility for sole representation of Wallops Island’s employees to five different segments of the union; no employee vote was ever held. It is unclear whether any of the facility’s 153 members even voted in the original election.

“I was never interested in participating in the union. Their actions were inconsistent with my beliefs,” he said in a phone interview with the Washington Free Beacon. “They kept taking action without local dialogue or consultation … I wanted a democratic process.”

One of Walsh’s supporters, who requested anonymity due to concerns over job security, said that the union’s micromanagement of employee interactions obstructed their efficiency at the workplace.

“As employees we have no idea what they are doing and some of the things we hear about are childish and petty,” the source said. Walsh had won the good will of most of his colleagues for taking action, rather than just griping about the union at the water cooler, the source added.

Walsh took up a petition to force a secret ballot election and within four days had 53 supporters—more than the 30 percent needed to force a decertification election. He submitted those results to the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA), which administers labor law for federal workers. He thought he and his colleagues would be voting in a matter of weeks.

Though the AFGE failed to respond to the petition at first, the FLRA’s regional director gave the union three weeks to file its objections to the petition. The union asked for one extension, then another. AFGE missed its Aug. 12 deadline, but submitted objections the next day. On Aug. 27, the union submitted a final objection, asserting that Walsh had failed to file the election petition in a timely manner.

Unbeknownst to Walsh, federal labor law only allows election petitions to be filed during a 45 day window before the expiration of an existing contract. Anyone seeking to vote the union out would have had to file a petition between July 10 and Aug. 26; Walsh filed on June 17. A quick union response would have allowed Walsh an opportunity to re-file his petition before the August deadline.

“AFGE doesn’t believe in the democratic process because they’re afraid they would fail if there was an election,” he said, adding that he was “shocked to find how slow the FLRA was” when a deadline was looming.

Walsh and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTWLDF) are now fighting to overturn the technicality that eliminated the possibility of an election. Walsh’s attorney, Bruce Cameron, filed a brief to the three-member FLRA challenging the regional director’s decision. The federal law that allowed the union to prevail, they argued in the brief, does not subject individuals to the time constraints.

“This [timeliness window] that, under the plain language of the Statute, applies to rival unions, is the tool the Regional Director used to thwart the employees’ desire for a voice,” the brief says. “When Congress has plainly spoken on a subject, courts and agencies may not substitute their judgment for that of Congress.”

AFGE argued that numerous FLRA decisions have applied the window policy to individuals despite the strict language of the law. It also said that exempting individuals from the timeliness provisions would breed “chaos in labor relations” because it would fail to constrain the wishes of employees as it does rival labor groups.

“Such a chaotic scenario would make the negotiation and administration of a collective bargaining agreement essentially impossible,” the union said in its brief to the FLRA. “There is no basis in the law, policy, or legislative intent of the Statute for creating different timeliness standards.”

AFGE did not return request for comment.

Cameron said that the union is ignoring the intent of the law in order to preserve its hold on the facility. When AFGE speaks of “chaos,” he says, they are really speaking of anything outside status quo unionism.

“Inertia keeps the union in place unless something happens to change it. All the dynamics in decision making are stacked against the individual,” Cameron said in a phone interview. “If no one does anything the union just motors along and takes away the right of the individual to represent himself. You can see that existing forces are not trying to help him have an election.”

The FLRA is expected to reach a decision on the matter over the next several weeks. Walsh and his supporters have good reason to hope for a quick verdict from the FLRA even if the decision does not go their way.

“Right now it is unclear if they will issue a ruling or just set us aside, but the next 45-day window comes up on July 10, so I’m preparing to go through the process again,” Walsh said.