From Social Club to Labor Union 

 NTEU’s beginning can be traced back to 1938 when a group of Wisconsin employees working for Internal Revenue Collectors formed an organization with the goal of securing civil service protection, fair salaries and improved working conditions.

Formation of this organization—the National Association of Employees of Collectors of the Internal Revenue (NAECIR)—was no small task. At the time, political patronage was the order of the day in the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the predecessor of the Internal Revenue Service.

Employees of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, who were required to perform the dangerous and unpopular tasks of seizing the assets of delinquent taxpayers and collecting tax monies, feared the frequently vindictive whims of powerful politicians, not to mention the loss of their jobs if the Roosevelt New Deal Democrats were defeated.
Securing civil service status and improved working conditions became the ultimate goal for employees of the politically-appointed Bureau. By 1938, convinced that attempts to secure these rights and benefits through existing organizations would be futile, employees in the Bureau’s Wisconsin District began to organize a group devoted exclusively to the interests of Internal Revenue employees.

In May 1939, these Wisconsin District employees called a meeting in Milwaukee for interested workers from the Supervisory District comprised of Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of establishing an organization made up of and devoted to the interests of Internal Revenue employees. As a result, a temporary organization was established.

In October 1939, another meeting was held in Milwaukee. Invitations to launch a permanent national organization were extended to a nationwide audience. This meeting, the first NAECIR Convention, culminated in the adoption of a constitution, the election of officers and the establishment of a per capita dues structure. The convention body also established jurisdictional areas of operation and, in recognition of NAECIR’s founding, issued the association’s first charter, establishing the Milwaukee group that led the organizing initiative as Chapter 1.
Also serving within the Bureau, but under a separate management structure, were revenue agents who audited the larger and more complex tax returns. These agents, who later would be instrumental in the development of NTEU, had their own unique interests to pursue during the 1930s. Rather than establish a representative organization of their own or join with employees of the Collectors, the revenue agents joined the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE).

The various competing interests, which previously divided Bureau employees, changed in 1952 when the Truman administration issued its reorganization plan for the Bureau. In addition to renaming the Bureau of Internal Revenue the Internal Revenue Service, the reorganization resulted in revenue collectors and revenue agents being placed under a single administrative structure by merging the management responsibilities for the functions of audit, collection and criminal investigation into a single district position—the district director.
As a result of this reorganization, the very reason for NAECIR’s existence—namely, to obtain the protections of competitive service for its members—had been achieved. Therefore, in order to broaden its reach to all IRS employees who now shared a common community of interest under this new management structure, NAECIR changed its name to the National Association of Internal Revenue Employees (NAIRE) and refocused its objectives to attract new members.

IRS management officials and supervisors made up much of NAIRE’s leadership and membership. NAIRE attempted to function as a professional association, seeking to meet the specialized needs of IRS employees through congressional letter-writing campaigns, consultation with high-ranking IRS administrators, and social activities.

Due to IRS management’s dominating influence, however, NAIRE became little more than a social club, possessing neither definite goals nor the strong organizational structure required to promote the interests of its members.

Meanwhile, the 1952 reorganization produced another significant change—it gave the IRS Inspection Service the responsibility for internal security and enforcement of the Services s rigid standards of conduct. The overly-aggressive Inspection Service was soon running roughshod over employee rights. Its zeal to enforce its own interpretation of the IRS code of ethics resulted in many removals and resignations.
 NAIRE was unable to protect its members from the Inspection Service’s fervor and, thus, was incapable of effectively defending employees from unwarranted actions. It was this glaring inability to defend its members that triggered major changes within NAIRE.

Those changes came about because of Vincent L. Connery and his supporters, who set out to wrest control of NAIRE from the grip of management and to transform the loose confederation of virtually autonomous chapters into a cohesive unit, capable of speaking with a strong, single voice and effectively representing its members.
The strong management influence, which Connery and others sought to purge from NAIRE, was typical of federal unions during this period, despite President Kennedy’s 1962 Executive Order 10988, which served as the federal government’s first formal recognition that federal employees had the right to form and join unions.
Over time, management’s influence in NAIRE was eliminated through the issuance of executive orders that banned supervisors and managers from participation in NAIRE’s activities.

Connery, an IRS revenue agent, assumed his first NAIRE office in 1961 as president of the Wichita, Kansas, chapter. In 1962, he was elected to the NAIRE Executive Board; and in 1966, delegates to the NAIRE Convention elected him national president.

Connery’ s first order of business was fighting an intense internal battle to defeat a proposed merger with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). This merger would have resulted in NAIRE’s absorption into this larger union without consideration for the special needs of NA1RE members.

Connery viewed AFGE as more concerned with gobbling up large numbers of employees than attempting to serve employee needs. He not only succeeded in blocking the merger, he also launched organizing campaigns in the Brooklyn and Manhattan IRS District Offices in 1966 and 1968 where AFGE was the exclusive representative.
Shortly after his 1966 election, Connery appointed a committee to draft a new constitution. His idea was to clearly delineate lines of authority within a centralized structure and to provide a strong, official voice for NAIRE. The proposed constitution would establish the NAIRE presidency as a full-time job located at a national headquarters, thereby inserting the national president in the union’s mainstream for the first time.
In Augnst 1967, at the NAIRE Convention in Los Angeles, the new constitution was adopted, creating the constitutional foundation upon which the present-day NTEU stands. With this constitutional framework firmly established, NAIRE began its transformation from a social club to an active labor union.

Building A Union

Following the 1967 convention, Connery vowed that the union would never again be outclassed in the workplace, in the courtroom or at the bargaining table. Toward that end, he began a tradition that continues today of hiring the most talented lawyers, negotiators and staff available.
Among those first hired by Connery was Robert M. Tobias, a young, aggressive IRS attorney, who proceeded to play a major role in transforming the fledgling organization into a labor union.

 As general counsel during the 1970s and as national executive vice president from 1979-1983, Tobias helped establish NAIRE as a leader in protecting and expanding the rights of federal workers in the courts with a series of significant legal victories that changed the very nature of government employment.

In 1972, for example, the union sued President Nixon, at the peak of his power, by challenging his decision to bypass Congress and postpone salary increases for all federal workers covered by the General Schedule. This lawsuit, NTEU vs. Nixon, resulted in an unprecedented victory that required the government to pay over $533 million in back pay to federal employees. This victory constituted a major advancement in fulfilling Connery’s objective of establishing the union’s position as labor’s most skilled and successful advocate in the courts.
The legal victories continued. In another lawsuit, Boyce and Dixon vs. United States, the removal of two IRS service center employees was reversed, establishing for the first time the principles that an agency did not have total discretion in penalizing employees and that mitigating circumstances could render an agency-ordered removal an abuse of discretion.

Shortly thereafter, in NTEU vs. Fasser, the union won the right for federal employees to engage in informational picketing, an action previously considered banned by federal law.

This strategy of successfully confronting management in the courts was previously not practiced in the federal sector. For the first time, a federal union was concentrating on and winning the issues that concerned the dignity and respect of workers. Workers’ rights were being enforced, expanded and defined through the skilled advocacy of NTEU’s attorneys in the courts and before other third party decision-makers.

Buoyed by both the growing list of legal victories and the election successes against AFGE in the Brooklyn and Manhattan District Offices, delegates to the 34th National Convention, held in 1973 in San Francisco, voted to expand NAIRE’s jurisdiction to the entire Treasury Department. That same year, the association’s name was changed to the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) to more accurately reflect its representative jurisdiction.

Also in 1973, NTEU began its drive to gain representational rights for the 13,000 U.S. Customs Service employees who were represented by either the National Customs Service Association (NCSA) or AFGE, which was vigorously raiding NCSA units.

Due to NTEU’s established ties with the Treasury Department, its record of significant achievements in representing employees and its guarantee to NCSA of participation in governing NTEU, a merger with NCSA occurred in 1975. This merger represented the first group of non-IRS employees to be brought into NTEU.
It was during the mid-1970s that NTEU expanded to include other Treasury Department agencies, including what was then the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; Bureau of Engraving and Printing; the Bureau of the Public Debt and the Financial Management Service.

 By 1975, the demand and desire for increased services, generated by NTEU’s success in the courts and in the workplace, its expanding membership and the union’s decision to consolidate its units under national master contracts, provided the impetus for NTEU’s doubling its professional staff and opening field offices in San Francisco and Austin. Subsequently, field offices were opened in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver and Hoboken, New Jersey.

During NTEU’s formative years, it became evident that the union’s stature could not be enhanced if NTEU was perceived as a single agency union. Therefore, NTEU adopted a policy of controlled growth; and at the 1977 National Convention, delegates authorized the union’s expansion beyond the Department of the Treasury to any federal agency whose employees shared similar goals, objectives, problems and concerns as those experienced by Treasury employees.

This policy of organizing workers whose needs were similar to those of the existing NTEU membership resulted in dramatic success. NTEU soon became the fastest growing union in the federal sector, maintaining the highest percentage of membership penetration, while ensuring its delivery of high quality services to all members. No other union can support such a claim.

In the I 970s and I 980s, NTEU extended its reach to employees of the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Energy and Commerce; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; the Federal Election Commission; Federal Communications Commission; Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; the Patent and Trademark Office; and the Food and Drug Administration.

This time of growth paralleled significant steps forward for the union with the enactment of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. With new binding and enforceable arbitration procedures replacing advisory arbitration, NTEU made significant gains in negotiating grievance procedures to ensure unresolved matters would be reviewed in a timely manner by an independent third party.

This had, and continues to have, a significant impact on the day-to-day quality of work life for NTEU members. It was during this time that NTEU established the right to grieve higher-graded duty claims.

Another milestone was NTEU’s successful fight for the enactment of a law to provide for alternative work schedules (AWS). While many unions stood in opposition to AWS, NTEU’s efforts were rewarded. The 1982 law cleared the way for NTEU to negotiate what have become the standards for AWS in the private and public sectors.

In August 1983, Connery retired as NTEU’s national president. The solid legacy established during his 16-year tenure passed to Tobias, national executive vice president and general counsel. Tobias was the overwhelming choice to succeed Connery as NTEU’s national president in 1983 at the 39th National Convention in Los Angeles.

Fighting Back In New Ways

The 1980s continued to pose new challenges for the union. The threats of cutbacks and furloughs became even more commonplace and burdensome. NTEU led an offensive to fight the continuing attacks on federal jobs, salaries and benefits. As a result, NTEU members worked together more effectively than ever before to fight back in both traditional and non-traditional ways.

Using the right of federal employees to engage in informational picketing, established in the landmark decision in NTEU vs. Fasser, the union began the highly successful tradition of engaging the media and educating the public about the negative impact of furloughs and budget cuts on public services.

During the Reagan and first Bush administrations, NTEU engaged in an ongoing battle to block attacks on the pay and benefits of federal employees. NTEU fought aggressively against the onslaught against federal employees in numerous court battles. It took the issue of the constitutionality of random drug testing of Customs inspectors all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in NTEU vs. Von Raab and it successfully fought against anti-worker initiatives proposed by the head of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

In 1985, Tobias opened the union’ s third Legislative Conference with a call to the nation’s 2.3 million federal employees to join with NTEU in an immediate boycott of all W.R. Grace & Company products and services. The public awareness assault was in response to Peter Grace and the Grace Commission Report, which promoted the contracting out of federal jobs and cited federal retirement as a major cause of government waste.
Again, using highly visible informational pickets in cities across the nation, NTEU successfully engaged the media and educated the American public.

It was during this time, as well, that another hallmark of NTEU’s strength became apparent. The NTEU legislative program, with an emphasis on the grassroots involvement of NTEU chapters and members, became a model for effective legislative action. The highlight of this legislative activity is the annual NTEU Legislative Conference held in Washington, D.C. The conference brings together NTEU leaders from around the country to focus on legislative priorities and to meet with their members of Congress.

The 1992 election of President Clinton created new opportunities for federal employees. In October 1993, Clinton issued Executive Order 12871, which directed agencies to create partnerships with federal employee unions to improve government efficiency, effectiveness and employee satisfaction.

Management and labor working together in partnership was a new concept in many agencies. The IRS had jointly pioneered such an effort with NTEU in the late 1 980s. Now, encouraged by the executive order, NTEU had a real opportunity to be involved in decisions that previously were reserved exclusively to management, including budget preparation, strategic planning and job re-engineering.

The development of labor-management partnerships also presented a new opportunity to NTEU members to have some control over their work by participating in work redesign teams, process improvement teams and partnership councils.

The involvement of employees before, not after, decisions were made was a significant departure from past practices. However, it was clear that pre-decisional involvement of employees was a positive and credible way for agencies to increase productivity and, more importantly, increase job satisfaction for employees—all steps essential to agency success and to ensuring employees are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve in their service to America.

The introduction of formal agency-wide surveys also heightened the ability of employees to provide input. The Survey-Feedback-Action (SFA) program, which had been initiated at the IRS in 1993, became a prototype for measuring factors that impact the quality of work life and the ability of employees to do their jobs, including employee satisfaction, training and equipment.

This program was replicated at Customs with the annual Organizational Assessment Survey (OAS). The use of employee feedback surveys was extended into other NTEU­ represented departments and agencies as well, as part of a larger national partnership effort, initiated with NTEU support and encouragement, by the Clinton administration to improve government performance.
In addition to partnership, the 1990s brought changes for federal employees as a result of NTEU’s continued negotiating, litigation and legislative activity.

At the national and local levels, NTEU led the federal sector in negotiating expanded use of guaranteed awards, travel benefits, transit subsidies, alternative work schedules and flexible work arrangements. For the first time, an increasing number of NTEU-represented employees were able to work at home or alternative work sites. NTEU also negotiated the first agreement for child care subsidies in the federal sector, another example of NTEU leveraging enacted laws into negotiated gains for its members.

NTEU’s history is one we can all be proud of and help build on.

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