Judges Agree With Union on Honorifics During Negotiations

By Stephen Barr

Monday, January 19, 2004; Page B02


You can call me. . .

Mr. or Mrs. or Ms.

That's how members of a Kansas-based union asked to be addressed during contract negotiations -- and a three-judge panel has agreed.

The judges set aside an order from the Federal Labor Relations Authority that held that the government did not have to bargain over what titles came before names.

The case was brought by the Association of Civilian Technicians, Wichita Air Capitol Chapter -- the collective bargaining agent for a group of Kansas National Guard employees. The employees are "dual status technicians" -- civil service employees who must join the Guard where they are employed and serve in a military grade linked to their positions.

The union proposed that Guard officers address union representatives during negotiations and grievance proceedings without reference to their subordinate military ranks. Although the technicians wear uniforms when performing their duties, they wear civilian clothes at the bargaining table. The union contended that having Guard officers address the technicians as Mr., Mrs. and Ms., rather than as sergeant, would create an atmosphere of equality for conducting negotiations.

The Guard balked and the union took its case to the FLRA, the independent agency that rules in labor-management disputes inside the government. FLRA said that such a requirement would infringe on management turf because it would let the union set a condition of employment for the Guard officers.

But the three-judge panel disagreed. Judges Harry T. Edwards, David B. Sentelle and Karen L. Henderson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the union proposal "merely seeks to establish standards governing interactions between union and management representatives. . . . The proposal does not fix conditions of employment of management officials."

The union proposal, the judges wrote in their Jan. 9 ruling, "is akin to any ordinary ground rules proposal or routine regulation of negotiation procedures. Neither the Guard nor the Authority has asserted that the union offered this proposal in bad faith. Nor can it be said that the proposal would hinder the bargaining process."

Henderson also wrote a separate opinion that began with lyrics from the Paul Simon song "You Can Call Me Al" and raised questions about "the wisdom" of negotiating over honorifics.

"Where will it end?" she wrote. "Will addressing negotiators by first names be permitted? Prohibited? Regulated? What about nicknames? Or tone or volume of voice? To engage in bargaining over such minutiae, which the majority notes has nothing to do with any substantive condition of employment, is a waste of everyone's time as this litigation manifests."

Daniel M. Schember, the attorney for the Wichita Air Capitol Chapter, said the case was not a waste of time. "We don't want militarization of the bargaining process and we want to be at the bargaining table as equals."

He added: "The atmosphere of the bargaining room, and mutual respect and equality, is important to bargaining. It is not a trivial matter at all."