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Legal Services Corporation Employees Vote to Unionize

Alyssa Rosenberg | Government Executive

September 16, 2009

Lawyers and professional staff at a federal legal aid organization voted on Tuesday to form a union under the auspices of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

“We welcome the union as a new partner and look forward to working together to advance the mission of LSC to provide access to justice for all,” Legal Services Corporation President Helaine Barnett wrote in an e-mail to agency employees after results of the election, overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, were announced after two days of voting.

The new bargaining unit at LSC is small — the employees voted 26-1 to form a union — but the unionization campaign raised questions about the application of one of President Obama’s first executive orders, which bans agencies from reimbursing contractors for expenses they incur as a result of efforts to stop employees from unionizing. IFPTE officials argued that the corporation’s decision to hire an outside law firm to advise the agency about the union campaign was in violation of the executive order. But the union did not sue LSC to block the organization from using federally appropriated funds to pay the law firm, even though the union was convinced it could win a court case, said Paul Shearon, IFPTE’s secretary-treasurer, because it would have been an expensive organizing effort that IFPTE was confident of winning.

“One of the reasons we didn’t go with litigation is because the staff [of LSC] are very devoted to their mission, and they wanted to stay off the press radar, because the right tends to attack LSC quite a bit,” Chris Langford, an IFPTE organizer, said in an interview before the election. “They were very concerned about that, and they didn’t want their ability to form a union to affect LSC’s budget.”

Stephen Barr, LSC’s media relations director, said hiring outside counsel helped the agency “protect the right of employees and to ensure the prerogatives of management and to help us navigate through the NLRB process.”

Shearon said he thought LSC’s decision to hire the law firm convinced employees to vote in favor of the union.

The next step will be for the newly-formed union to negotiate a contract with the corporation. In August, Obama nominated five new members to the LSC board, which Shearon said could change the dynamics of the contract negotiations. The Senate has not confirmed those appointments yet.


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