17-Month-Old Union : Pact Eludes Air Force Workers at Rocketdyne

Times Staff Writer

It has been about 17 months since Air Force employees in Canoga Park who oversee work on the space shuttle engine voted to join a union and eight months since they started bargaining toward a first contract. They have yet to reach an agreement with the government.

The workers, stationed at an office the Air Force maintains at the Rocketdyne division of Rockwell International Corp., accuse the Air Force of stalling contract negotiations and trying to frustrate the union's efforts to represent its members. In addition, they say an Air Force labor representative walked out of talks on as basic an item as payroll deductions for union dues.

A Slow Process

The dissatisfaction reflects the frustrations faced generally by federal employee unions when it comes to trying to win labor contracts. It is not unusual, say union officials and observers of federal labor issues, for new locals to wait up to two years for their first contract.

"The problem is that, all along, none of the federal agencies have taken the idea of collective bargaining between the government and its unions seriously," said Loretta Ucelli, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union. "The federal government can stall and no one pays attention to what's happening. People think of federal employees as faceless bureaucrats behind desks and don't think of them as being out in Los Angeles making sure the space shuttle is put together correctly."

The fledgling Rocketdyne local represents 66 Air Force employees and is affiliated with the National Federation of Federal Employees. Its members are civilian Air Force workers who perform quality-control inspections.

Contract talks are under way, and while there has been some progress recently, the issue of what kind of a grievance procedure should be established is still in dispute. A national representative of the federal employee union says he believes it will not be resolved soon and that mediation will be required.

The talks have been limited by federal labor-relations law, which does not permit federal employees to negotiate pay levels or benefits.

"We work on a program that is vitally important to the nation's No. 1 space program, and I don't understand why they would want to treat us in a way that enrages us," said Lee Ewing, one of the local's organizers. "It damages our morale."

Added Norm Fenstermacher, president of the federal employee union local, "I really hope that this thing can be concluded and that the people can see a contract. In essence a lot of the people in the work areas feel that, without a contract, the union isn't worth anything."

Lt. Col. Alva Matheson, the commanding officer of the Air Force's quality inspectors at Rocketdyne, acknowledges that the past months have been "very difficult for this union," but says the Air Force is not to blame. "I know of no refusal to negotiate," he said. "I know of no time when the government has not responded to them immediately."

Matheson said the union did not submit a full list of negotiable proposals until last April. Union officials say that is true but add that they were preoccupied in the early months with wresting coop eration from management on a variety of organizational items and with a dispute about the cancellation of overtime pay on weekends.

The major fact of life in a federal workers union, one that saps the unions' effectiveness, is that members are legally barred from striking. In 1981, the public received a vivid lesson in how federal employee unions work. Members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization struck the government and the Reagan Administration fired them.

Since the PATCO strike, the activities and problems of federal unions have sunk back into the obscurity that enshrouded them previously. For example, it is unlikely that many people outside of government circles have heard of the difficulties that employees of the Army Corps of Engineers in Los Angeles have had for about two years in bargaining for a contract. The Overseas Education Assn., which represents teachers at U.S. military bases, has been bargaining with the Department of Defense for three years.

Grievance Is Key Issue

Because wages and benefits are not negotiable, issues that outrage federal employees are relatively undramatic compared with those that occupy unions in the private sector.

At Rocketdyne, the key issue is who should have the final say in resolving a grievance filed by the union.

The union wants a process in which the final decision would be made by the commander of the office the Air Force maintains at Rocketdyne to oversee the company's work on Air Force contracts. The Air Force is pushing for a process with an extra step, in which the last judgment would be made at Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., where officials handling the Air Force's labor relations in the Southwest are based.

Workers say the extra step would complicate their efforts to get a response to their grievances. "I've told my people not to accept it," said a national business representative of the National Federation of Federal Employees who asked not to be named.

The local has filed six unfair labor practice charges against the Air Force with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, the equivalent of the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees labor relations in the private sector.

Of the six complaints, the union ultimately withdrew four before a ruling was made. In one case, involving a charge of bad-faith bargaining and delaying tactics, the Air Force apologized to the union for its behavior, according to Ed Washington, an official in charge of the labor relations authority's Los Angeles region.

Union officials at Rocketdyne say they would have done better with their other four charges if they had been more experienced at filing them.

Most of the union representatives are employees, unlike the full-time labor lawyers who represent the Air Force, "and that is a definite disadvantage" for the union, Washington said. Union members say the local's problems date back almost as far as the September, 1983, election that created it.

Delays Noted

Larry Palmer, a former union shop steward who is now at Vandenberg Air Force Base at Lompoc, wrote of delays in a sworn affidavit in support of one of the unfair labor practice complaints.

One troubling incident, Palmer said, occurred Nov. 3, 1983, when union officials sat down with management representative Jo Marie Lisa to discuss procedures for having payroll deductions made for union dues.

Palmer wrote that Lisa, who has since left the Air Force office at Rocketdyne for another job, refused to consider the union's proposals on payroll deductions and other matters and walked out of the meeting. It was months, Palmer said, before the Air Force started making the deductions.

Lt. Col. Matheson said, "I cannot tell you whether that happened, but it would not surprise me. That type of thing happens in that type of negotiation."

In January, the inspector general of the Air Force criticized excessive overtime payments at Rocketdyne. Matheson eliminated an overtime salary differential paid for work done on Saturdays in cases where the work was done as part of a 40-hour work week. Previously, workers were paid a time-and-a-half weekend salary differential.

Outside Jurisdiction

Between January and February of last year, union officials say, they tried to negotiate the change with Matheson. For example, they wanted the list of who would be put on a work schedule that included Saturdays to be determined according to seniority.

"They were beyond the scope of their jurisdiction," said Matheson, noting that scheduling changes are also beyond the scope of federal employees' bargaining rights. "What ticks them off is that you cannot negotiate that sort of thing with us." On April 24, the union submitted a group of contract proposals to management, but Ewing, who was then the union's president, says he received no indication that the Air Force intended to sit down soon and negotiate.

Ewing said there were no discussions until he resorted to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which provides mediators for stymied bargaining talks. There was a meeting with Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service officials and representatives of both sides at Rocketdyne, but management said it could not negotiate because, on June 1, labor specialist Lisa had resigned.

"Without her, we could not negotiate," said Matheson. He said that a replacement for Lisa was found in August. Since then, he said, "talks have proceeded apace."

"It's not true that they couldn't negotiate without her," said a union official, who asked not to be identified. "The Air Force has lots of people. Lawyers all over the place. They didn't want to negotiate."

There were other exchanges between the two sides, but they only produced more charges of foot-dragging from the union. In August, 1984, the union filed a complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority alleging bad-faith bargaining by the Air Force. In November, that charge was upheld, according to labor relations authority official Washington.

"The parties entered into a settlement agreement," Washington said. "In effect, it was an apology" from the Air Force, he said. Last fall, the union and the Air Force started negotiations aimed at reaching a contract. Many of the smaller issues have been resolved. But a major one, the grievance procedure, remains. Another is the union's request that members who work at Rocketdyne's rocket engine test site in the Santa Susanna Mountains be eligible for "environmental pay," extra pay for exposure to chemicals used in the area.

Without resolution during bargaining talks, it is likely the grievance issue will go to the Federal Services Impasse Panel, which issues rulings that decide the outcome of such irreconcilable disputes between federal employee unions and management.

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