Food inspectors' union rights restored under FLRA ruling

By Karen Rutzick

About 70 food and import inspectors in the Agriculture Department won the right to have union representation restored, after losing it due to national security concerns.

The Federal Labor Relations Authority's Chicago regional board ruled Wednesday that the department did not establish the inspectors' work to have a "clear and direct connection to national security." That connection, if found, would have precluded the inspectors from union representation under the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute passed by Congress after 9/11.

The inspectors examine poultry, meat and egg products coming from overseas.

Since the FLRA did not find the employees' work to be sufficiently connected to national security, the board gave the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that filed the complaint, exclusive bargaining representation of the employees in question.

Agriculture reorganized in the fall of 2003. Part of the shifting was to move the import inspectors from the Office of Field Operations to the Office of International Affairs. That prompted the agency to bar the inspectors from union representation, according to the department officials.

In its decision, the FLRA said that while Agriculture officials revised these employees' job descriptions to emphasize matters of national security, such as "food security duties," the "actual duties at the time of the hearing" did not sufficiently include such duties.

An Agriculture spokesperson said the inspectors' responsibilities did change, most notably that they were charged with surveillance of the facilities for infiltration at the ports of entry, and that they will receive more homeland security duties in the future.

AFGE officials said this case represents the first time workers have had union rights restored after losing them due to national security concerns. The Homeland Security and Defense departments are forming new personnel regulations which lessen collective bargaining rights for employees. This change is meant to create more personnel flexibility to allow rapid response to problems of national security, department officials have said.

Stan Painter, chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals at AFGE, said this case is a harbinger. "In my opinion, this is a test case," he said. "The agency took this group, trying to get them out of the union, and it was going to spread from there."

According to the FLRA ruling, the work that these inspectors perform is merely reinspection of food shipments from other countries. These employees do not exercise "independent judgment and discretion," and are not privy to classified information, the FLRA found.

Painter said the Agriculture Department first sent him notice that these inspectors would be removed from union representation on Aug. 29, 2003. Before taking away union rights, only 45 positions were filled; soon after the union's removal, Agriculture hired almost 30 more workers, according to Painter.

He also said that a number of the employees wanted to remain members of the union, and that AFGE helped the inspectors with issues such as equalization of overtime hours and fairness of work-time breaks.

Agriculture said they are reviewing the decision to determine whether or not they will appeal. The department has 60 days from the time of the ruling to file.