An independent federal agency has found that the National Treasury Employees Union conducted “unfair labor practices” against its own union members.
The Federal Labor Relations Authority, an independent agency that oversees federal public employee union activity, concluded that the union had given preferential treatment to a union activist over 13 other ordinary union members who faced similar grievances at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The act was considered a violation of the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute that protects federal workers.
The Authority, whose chairman was appointed by President Obama in 2013, ordered NTEU to put up notices within 14 days after the December 3 settlement, informing all CFPB employees that the Authority “found merit to the unfair labor practice charges.”
A local union officer called the FRLA ruling, “a serious repudiation” of NTEU national officers.
An FLRA official, who confirmed the settlement to Economics21, said the case has not been publicly revealed because the dispute was privately handled within the Authority’s Office of General Counsel.
The FRLA case is only the latest skirmish in what has become a rough-and-tumble war of words between CFPB’s union rank-and-file and its national headquarters.
CFPB, a new agency founded by the Obama administration in 2010, itself has faced a storm of criticism about how agency mangers have created a hostile work environment for its women and minority employees.
An outside CFPB investigator last April told a House Financial Services Committee subcommittee that women and minorities working at the agency faced a “toxic workplace.”
Angela Martin, a CFPB senior enforcement attorney and whistleblower aroused ire of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), the ranking Democrat to the full House committee, when she testified that the CFPB’s Consumer Response Unit, populated mainly by black employees was called “The Plantation.”
Last August CFPB director Richard Cordray was forced to scrap an agency-wide performance evaluation program when an internal review determined there were “statistically significant” disparities in employee ratings that because of race, gender and even age, rather than performance.
To date, the sensational charges of discriminatory practices by the new bureau have largely overshadowed a second, parallel crisis that has engulfed CFPB workers and it union.
Many union members described the NTEU national leadership and Robert Cauldwell, its handpicked local president, as authoritarian. Among other things, the union’s headquarters pre-empted the local chapter from negotiating with CFPB management on local grievances and contract issues. Local board members also charge that Cauldwell and the national leadership arranged a collective bargaining vote last October that was tainted with irregularities and ballot stuffing.
So far two of the five local board members have resigned to protest the national union practices.
Sarah Whittle Spooner, an FRLA spokeswoman told Economics21 that federal complaints against unions are rare, constituting a very small percentage of the complaints the oversight agency receives.
The FLRA provided data showing that in fiscal year 2013, only six percent of all complaints filed with the agency were against labor unions. In fiscal year 2014 it was seven percent.
Last June and July, three different CFPB employees who were members of NTEU local chapter 335 complained about “breach of duty of fair representation” by the national NTEU and its representatives.
The employees charged that the national NTEU leadership and Cauldwell chose to advance the case of Maria Green Early because she was a union activist who was able to get NTEU certified as the recognized bargaining agent at CFPB.
“I like Maria’s as the first one to take because she was so active in getting the union in,” NTEU general counsel Jeff Friday told Benjamin Konop, the local chapter executive vice president, in a March 31 email.
Economics21 obtained documents and emails pertaining to the union controversies from the FLRA and organized labor officials.
Konop told Economics21 the official unfair labor finding “is a serious repudiation of NTEU’s current way of doing business” and said he hoped it would be a “wakeup call for the national union.”
The three local union members who filed unfair labor practice complaints “deserve to be commended for having the courage and fortitude to take on a large, well-funded union and stand up for their rights under federal law,” Konop continued. “Sadly, the rank-and-file has become increasingly disillusioned with national NTEU.”
Among those who resigned from the board this summer was Martin, the CFPB employee who blew the whistle on racial and gender discrimination at the agency.
In a July 24 email to fellow union members announcing her board resignation, Martin said that Cauldwell “appears to devalue accountability, transparency, and democratic principles for our chapter.”
She stated: “Unless we want our chapter to be run as an anti-worker dictatorship, then we must insist that it abides by democratic, pro-worker principles.”
Local members, including union stewards, have complained that national union officials intimidated critics and forbade the local chapter from participating in negotiations before CFPB management.
NTEU president Colleen Kelley confirmed the national union’s position excluding the local chapter in a July 9 letter to Liza Strong, then CFPB’s labor relations’ officer.
“The NTEU National President or designee is NTEU’s point of contact for all matters relating to bargaining,” she wrote, pre-empting the local chapter.
On grievances, Kelley stated that, “President Rob Cauldwell or his designee [is] to handle the specific grievance.”
In October, an outcry ensued with charges of ballot and voting irregularities organized by Cauldwell.
The controversy occurred around the local chapter’s vote on a pending collective bargaining agreement with CFPB. In late October, the contract narrowly passed by a vote of 197 to 179.
Prior to the vote, NTEU’s local chapter secretary Jenefer Duane informed union members that the national NTEU had rejected an independent third party to oversee the voting and had barred a private vote.
In an October 22 email, she told the members: “Unfortunately, Mr. Cauldwell has rejected our request for an independent third party monitor of the voting process without offering any compelling justification.”
Voting irregularities were spotted before the actual vote. A survey circulated prior to the balloting showed 37 votes were cast within a 20-minute span.
The votes originated from the same IP address. They all were “yes” votes for the contract and for Mr. Cauldwell, according to sources familiar with the balloting.
“All members of the board, except for Mr. Cauldwell, are alarmed by the lack of transparency and integrity of the voting process,” Duane charged.
Gail Wisely, a chapter vice president, supported Duane’s statements, telling union members in an October 24 email, “we deserve a fair voting process with private ballots and uniform standards for counting votes.”
A public “standing vote” demanded by Cauldwell “obviously lends itself to intimidation by interested parties,” Wisely stated.
She further noted that “A number of members have already voiced concerns about intimidation, bullying and harassment at Chapter events,” and said she was worried because “there was no written record of the votes.”
Anthony Romano, a Cauldwell ally, fired back to his critics, often caustically.
In an October 27 email to all union members, he said that vice president Wisely had “bullied her way into this discussion” and described critics as people who were “whining.”
Later in his email Romano depicted Wiesly and Konop followers as “zombie followers” and a “crazy crew,” adding threateningly, “we all know who they are.”
Romano told the union rank-and-file, “hopefully next year we can get rid of this board.”
In his own resignation from the local board Craig Erdmann, told the rank-and-file, “I cannot tolerate any more intolerance.”
In a statement to Economics21, the national NTEU asserted: “The FLRA found no improper or unlawful handling of the pay equity grievances, but did agree that the email created the impression that NTEU gives union supporters preferential treatment, a violation of the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute.”
The unfair treatment at NTEU is a symptom of the larger problem of union leaders working for their own benefits, rather than their members’. As union membership continues to decline, desperate union leaders will have to reevaluate the way they treat their members if they wish to stay relevant in a 21st century economy.
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Richard Pollock is a contributor to e21.
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