Unions urge SSA leaders for new contract, workplace safety plan
The two top Social Security Administration leaders were fired weeks ago, but union leaders say the agency will take more action to repair strained labor-management relations.
On July 9, President Joe Biden ousted Commissioner Andrew Saul and Deputy Commissioner David Black, two leaders appointed by former President Donald Trump for a fixed term. The agency is now headed by acting commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi, previously the agency’s deputy commissioner for pension and disability policy.
She has met with union officials, where she “made it clear” that she “respects the negotiation process and wants a collaborative, respectful and civic labor management relationship in Social Security” and expects “cooperation and professionalism in meetings with the agency’s management,” SSA press officer Mark Hinkle told FCW.
That message being communicated to SSA executives — that they should work with unions — is “the exact opposite” of what it was, said Barri Sue Bryant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 2809, which represents workers. of an SSA operations center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and member of the SSA General Committee.
It remains to be seen exactly how changes at the top will feed into the machinery of labor-management relationships. In the meantime, union officials and civil servants continue to clash over contracts and the unions’ possible role in formulating workplace safety plans.
“SSA has had such a long-standing culture of hostile labor-management relationships,” said Melissa McIntosh, president of the Association of Administrative Judges (AALJ). “It will take a very concerted effort to change that culture.”
Bryant says she’s seen some positive changes. Concerned agency officials have reached out to her to discuss issues more frequently and proactively before changes are made.
Other AFGE leaders are not satisfied. Ralph DeJuliis, chairman of Council 220, which represents 29,000 SSA workers in field offices and call centers, says there are still instances where the agency will communicate changes to the union at the same time as to the general workforce.
He wants the current leadership in the agency’s Office of Labor Management and Employee Relations replaced.
If they stay at the helm and AFGE negotiates a contract with them, “it will be nothing but a fight,” DeJuliis said. “We will not have a partnership. We will not have collegiality or collaboration.”
When asked about that demand for change in the employment agency, Hinkle told FCW that Acting Commissioner Kajakazi “trusts the professional leadership of the employment management agency to carry out its vision of the relationship with efficiency and professionalism.”
Both unions have big things on the table.
Replacing their 2019 contract remains a top priority for the AFGE, Bryant and DeJuliis said.
A January executive order ordered agencies to reverse Trump’s union policies. AFGE’s current contract was negotiated in the wake of Trump’s now-revoked 2018 executive orders, which limited official time, restricted union use of federal facilities and eased the process for firing underperformers.
Union officials say that context impacted the entire contract, but in an agency’s review of the agreement finalized in June, the agency only identified sections it believed were affected by the now-withdrawn orders.
AFGE has contested the assessment in writing and has also filed a complaint against the union administration, Bryant said.
Another concern is the workplace safety plan, which the agency has already implemented and is now negotiating with unions.
AFGE expects it to be deadlocked, Bryant said. AALJ is already at an impasse over the plan, McIntosh said. SSA already has a signed agreement with the National Treasury Employees Union unit, Hinkle said.
Finally, like other federal agencies, SSA is working on its plans to reopen the agencies.
It was granted an extension to the original July 19 deadline for filing the agency’s re-entry plans with the Office of Management and Budget and submitted its plan on July 26. The agency will comply with “applicable labor obligations” after OMB reviews and approves the plan, Hinkle said.
It’s a point McIntosh struggles with.
“The unions really should play a role in formulating the return to the workplace,” McIntosh said. “Those are terms of employment of bread and butter, but we were not involved in it.”
It is envisaged that AALJ will begin negotiations on September 21 on a new contract on behalf of an independent arbitrator. As of 2020, three arbitrators have found cases of misdemeanor from SSA in their work with AALJ.
The judges’ union will negotiate with a team led by employees who have committed unfair employment practices by those independent arbitrators, McIntosh said. They were designated before Kijakazi was appointed acting commissioner, she said.
The union is going to meet them in good faith, she said. The two have already drawn up the rules of the game.
“But it will be very difficult to build a new relationship if there is no admission that they have broken the law and are determined to stop breaking the law,” she said. “It’s just a very broken relationship, and it takes more than just lip service.”
Natalie Alms is a staff writer at FCW for the federal workforce. She is a recent graduate of Wake Forest University and has written for the Salisbury (NC) Post. Connect with Natalie on Twitter at @AlmsNatalie.