Foreign Service Labor Relations Board Rules For @StateDept in 2014 MSI Case

AFSA has recently informed its members that the Foreign Service Labor Relations Board (FSLRB) has ruled for the State Department in the 2014 Meritorious Service Increase (MSI) dispute. The ruling affects approximately 270 Foreign Service employees: 

AFSA regrets to inform our members that on September 21, 2018, the Foreign Service Labor Relations Board (FSLRB) granted the Department of State’s exceptions (i.e., appeal) and set aside the Foreign Service Grievance Board’s (FSGB) December 8, 2017 Decision, which had found that the Department violated the procedural precepts by not paying Meritorious Service Increases (MSI) to approximately 277 Foreign Service employees who were recommended but not reached for promotion by the 2014 Selection Boards.  AFSA argued that the Department was required to confer MSIs on all eligible employees (up to the 10% limit set forth in the precepts) who were recommended but not reached for promotion.  The Department argued that it had the unilateral discretion to give MSIs to only 5% of employees ranked but not reached for promotion, since 5% was below the 10% limit.

Rather than give substantial deference, as is normally the case, to the FSGB’s interpretation of the parties’ agreement (i.e., the promotion precepts), two of the three FSLRB members (including the Administration’s appointee to the FSLRB) agreed with the Department’s arguments and found that the FSGB had misinterpreted the precepts.  The third member, Retired Ambassador Herman Cohen, dissented from the majority decision.  When a party seeks to establish that an arbitrator (in this case, the Grievance Board) misinterpreted an agreement, the party must provide that the decision “fails to draw its essence from the agreement.”  This is an extremely high burden to meet.  According to the case law, “great deference” is given to the arbitrator’s interpretation of the agreement “because it is the arbitrator’s construction of the agreement for which the parties have bargained.”   In this case, however, the FSLRB chose not to defer to the Grievance Board, ignoring the “great deference” practice.  Unfortunately, the FSLRB’s decision is not subject to judicial review.

AFSA says that it is “extremely disappointed by this decision.” Its notice to members notes that it prevailed in two earlier cases, the 2013 and 2014 MSI disputes. It also informed members that despite this ruling, it plans to proceed with the 2015 and 2016 MSI cases before the Grievance Board.

Excerpt from FSLRB ruling says:

The Grievance Board stated that it was “indisputably true” that, by its plain terms, the phrase “no more than [10%]” in the agreement means that the Agency may award MSIs to “10% or less” of eligible employees.29 As discussed above, the Grievance Board should have ended its analysis there, with the agreement’s plain wording. Instead, the Grievance Board found that, because the parties had different interpretations, the wording was ambiguous.30 But wording that is clear on its face does not become ambiguous simply because the parties disagree as to its meaning.31 Rather, a contract is ambiguous if it is susceptible to two different and plausible interpretations, each of which is consistent with the contract wording. 32 The interpretation adopted by the Grievance Board – that “no more than [10%]” means the Agency must award MSIs to no less than 10% of eligible employees33 – is not consistent with the plain meaning of the agreement’s wording. Consequently, it is not a plausible interpretation of the agreement.

FLRA Chairman Colleen Duffy Kiko who was confirmed by the Senate in November 2017 serves as the Chairperson of the FSLRB. The two other members of the FSLRB are Stephen Ledford, who previously served as the Director of Labor and Employee Relations at the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and was sworn on his third term with FSLRB in 2015, and Ambassador (ret.) Herman J. Cohen, a career diplomat and specialist in African and European affairs who was appointed to his first term with the FSLRB in October 2015.

In his dissent, Ambassador Cohen writes:

For five years prior to 2014, the year covered by this case, the promotion precepts, negotiated between management and the union, were always the same: MSIs will be awarded to those recommended for promotion at a maximum of ten percent of those on the list, in rank order. With this practice having been followed year after year, it is quite normal that the union had the right to believe that the number would never be less than ten percent pursuant to the negotiated precepts. Ten percent was not part of a sliding scale. It was an agreed amount.

If management had changed that number from year to year, the situation for 2014 would have been totally different. The union would have demanded the right to negotiate that number.

For this reason, management’s decision to unilaterally change the number of MSIs was contrary to the precepts, despite the ambiguous language. Historical practice said that ten percent of those recommended, but not promoted, would receive MSIs. Secondly, management gave a reason for awarding only five percent MSIs in 2014. Management said it was “exercising its budgetary authority” to make the reduction. In other words, the funds were needed elsewhere.
[…]
In the specific year 2014, it appears that the need to save money by reducing MSIs had no relationship to overall budgetary needs. In short, management was saving money on MSIs, and using that “salary money” to pay for 35 sets of ambassadorial furniture, as one possible example. In 2014, management provided no reason to justify this reduction in this highest priority “salary” by higher priority needs elsewhere. Neither, to my knowledge, was there an overall government-wide freeze in MSIs that year.

The case is U.S. State Department v. AFSA. The FSLRB decision is available to read here or see this link: FS-AR-0007Dec 9-21-18

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FS Labor Relations Board on AFSA Dues, Foreign Service Retirees, and Annuities ≠ Salaries

Posted: 4:22 am ET
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Last month, the Foreign Service Labor Relations Board (FSLRB) rendered a decision about AFSA dues and Foreign Service retirees.  AFSA filed with the Foreign Service Labor Relations Board (the Board) a “request[ for] . . . interpretation and guidance of § 1018(b)(2) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980. This provision concerns the termination of payroll deductions for union dues when “the individual ceases to receive a salary from the [Agency] as a member of the Service.”

When Agency employees wish to have their Union dues automatically withheld from their paychecks, the employees complete a form that authorizes the Agency to withhold those funds and remit them to the Union.6 According to the Union, the Agency automatically terminates dues withholding when a foreign-service employee retires. The Union asserts that this practice is based on an erroneous understanding of § 1018(b)(2) of the Foreign Service Act …
[…]
[T]he Union argues that the automatic termination of dues withholding causes it to lose dues and, therefore, asks the Board to find that § 1018(b)(2) does not require automatic termination of dues withholding upon retirement.
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The Union contends that the Agency should continue withholding dues from an individual’s retirement benefits based on the same dues-withholding-authorization form that applied to the individual’s salary while in active service.17 We disagree.

Section 1018(b)(2) of the Foreign Service Act requires the Agency to terminate an existing dues-withholding assignment when an “individual ceases to receive a salary from the [Agency].”18 As explained below, retirees generally receive “annuities,” not salaries, upon retirement.19

The FSLRB says it find that § 1018(b)(2) requires the State Department to terminate an existing dues-withholding assignment when a retiring employee stops receiving a salary.

The Department deducts union dues from salaries on the basis of a voluntary act by the Foreign Service employee. The employee has the right to revoke his/her decision at any time. Whenever an employee who has had his/her union dues deducted from salary arrives at the moment of retirement, it must be assumed that he/she continues to believe it had been in his/her interest to maintain both their membership in the union, and the automatic deduction of union dues.

The Board notes that “when a foreign-service employee retires, that “individual ceases to receive a salary from the [Agency].”30 Consequently, under § 1018(b)(2), the Agency must terminate the individual’s previous dues-withholding assignment.”
AFSA has over 10,000 active paying FS members. Its dues range from $95.00 to $400.00 annually based on four employee brackets.  Read the full decision below:

 

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Open Forum Furor: An Attempt to Neuter Retiree Complaints About AFSA?

Posted: 1:44 am ET
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AFSA’s Open Forum enables Foreign Service retirees to stay in touch with their Foreign Service colleagues on FS issues and maintain their FS legacy. Out of some 16,000 paying members, a sub-group of retiree-members use the online forum, and they are pretty vocal and not always complimentary to AFSA or its leadership. AFSA previously opted-in all members to the forum in 2014 so everyone gets to read the online conversation.

An Open Forum user said that all those who get the Open Forum digest daily benefits from being part of a dynamic discussion/debate of Foreign Service topics of interest, whether or not they chose to post in the forum themselves.

AFSA Director of Communications Asgeir Sigfusson recently told members that “We have heard from members asking us to do our best to stem the flow of emails and help with inbox clutter. In response, we are now opting everyone out of that daily email, which will reduce the number of weekly AFSA emails by up to seven.”

We were informed by our sources that “When asked, AFSA staff indicated they have no knowledge of any complaints about the Forum.”

AFSA’s President and State VP, and their communication shop are notoriously unresponsive to our inquiries, so um … pardon us if we no longer waste our time over there.  

The Open Forum mechanism to opt-in is reportedly not onerous, and we can certainly understand decluttering the inbox but some AFSA members are outrage, especially as the change was announced just a few days before it took effect.  More importantly, there is a strong suspicion that trimming access to the forum (or what members read even passively from the forum) and the requirement to opt-in are just ways to trim the unfavorable views expressed by the retired members.

Former AFSA Vice President for Retirees Larry Cohen who oversaw the creation of the forum did not minced words and said, “This as an attempt of AFSA leadership to neuter retiree complaints about AFSA.”

Ouch! What are they talking about in there, do tell!

A close AFSA observer notes that changes at AFSA that could have lead to this kerfuffle includes communication issues like Governing Board meeting agendas and approved minutes that should be available on the AFSA website for any interested member but are not.

“Overall AFSA leadership seems to want a tight control on information.  They do not share enough or ask enough.  The current communications policy divides up the Service by not sharing communications across all constituencies so that  all interested, whether active or retired, can be better informed.  Boards and staff continue to ignore the bylaw provision for constituency Standing Committees.  Now is a time to enlarge the tent, not restrict it.  Standing committees have an advisory function and allow for a broader range of perspectives.  The results or main themes or take-always from the  “focused conversations” organized by rank cohort are not shared with the membership with the degree of specificity needed to be useful.  It is not clear how focus group conversations are announced or participants selected.  What about retirees – are they included?”

That sounds almost as bad as the information control generated by the 7th Floor.

The AFSA observer also notes that elected representatives are accountable to members and every member deserves a respectful and timely response to any request for information.

Just yesterday, an Open Forum user complained that the three items he/she submitted have not been published nor acknowledged and asked, “What in the name of AFSA openness is going on?”

The AFSA election results for the 2017-2019 AFSA Governing Board had a total of 4,130 valid ballots cast or 25% of the eligible voting membership (note that the new Governing Board was seated last week, so old Prez but new State VP). That’s the same percentage of voters who participated in the 2015-2017 elections. A few years back, we sliced and diced the AFSA voting numbers and at that time, we noted that active-duty employees were the largest voting bloc in AFSA at over 60% of the total membership, but only about 16% of this constituency vote. Foreign Service retirees on the other hand, the second largest constituents of AFSA make up something like 26% of the total membership but almost half the total AFSA retiree members cast their votes (2016 membership is currently 10,792 active employees and 3,710 retired employees). The retirees also bring in about $260K in AFSA dues annually.

As a side note, did you hear about the ruling from the Foreign Service Labor Relations Board (FSLRB) about Foreign Service retirement and witholding of union dues? (Separate post to follow).

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