STRAIGHT OUT OF KAFKA

FEVSarticle

Just days after the release of the results of the 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the Broadcasting Board of Governors with much fanfare held its awards ceremony. The ceremonies included a color guard, lots of smiling and non-smiling denizens of the bureaucratic structure and at the end, some light refreshments.

The union was glad to see that several bargaining unit employees received much-deserved awards. Some other award winners, particularly from management. were puzzling, if not downright troubling.

The results of the 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey – our Agency management’s annual report card – showed that several agency areas received nothing but failing grades. These units failed in ALL categories across the board.

Preliminary analysis shows that the work units listed below are the absolute worst of the worst and where the management represents spectacular failures, according to the only report card management officials receive – the annual FEVS results. Here are the ten worst units in the building ranked in order starting with the very worst workplace:

English Radio Branch (Regional)
Central News and Production
Afghan Service
Persian Service
Mandarin Service
IBB Office of Contracts
News Gathering Branch, Central News Division, Operations Support Division (tied)
Television Operations / TV Studio Service
Russian Service
English Division

If the union may be so bold as to ask: Why did any management official in the worst performing work units listed above receive an award? For what, pray tell? What were the criteria for the Agency award? It’s a travesty that managers from the worst managed units (as identified in the FEVS) are rewarded for anything. These undeserved awards have an immediate and depressing impact on employee morale. Wouldn’t it make sense that ONLY those managers with higher-than-average results in the FEVS survey should even be considered for an award?

We might add that any reward to undeserving managers in this or any other federal agency comes from the pocket of the already beleaguered U.S. taxpayer.

The Union suggests that the members of the Awards Coordinators and Planning Committee should be instructed to automatically reject any award for a management official in a work unit that received a failing grade in the evaluated FEVS categories.

Our sources tell us that upper management considers employee morale as a yawn item, ranking in importance somewhere below their daily decision as to where to have lunch. That’s why they don’t take the pesky issue seriously. The upper bureaucracy, ensconced in their comfy suites in the Cohen building, seemingly don’t give a fiddle about the survey results and wish the FEVS would just go away.

Otherwise, how could higher management allow the chief of one of the very worst work units in the building to be rewarded with a quality step increase? Demonstrably failed managers should not be allowed to receive outstanding ratings.

By allowing this, the Agency turns the entire ritual into a Kafka-esque burlesque.

You know it and we know it as well: Morale will never improve in an Agency where bad management performers are not held accountable for the miserable morale in their work units but instead are rewarded and celebrated for their abject failures.

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THE BABY STEP TANGO

The final results of the 2017 OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) have just been released and guess what? For the Broadcasting Board of Governors, there is no significant difference between this year’s and last year’s results. In fact, for the BBG, there is no significant difference between this year’s results and the results for every one of the past surveys since the very first one in 2002. The federal employees at the BBG are caught in a full-blown crisis: a crisis of confidence, a crisis of poor leadership, a crisis of morale.

Once again, our Agency has the dubious honor of being the cellar-dweller in the Medium-Sized Federal Agency category. We’re the “bottom of the barrel” kids. We literally can go no lower!

A look back shows that, over many years, Agency management has preached “incremental improvements” or taking “baby steps” in order to turn things around. Well, those incremental baby-step improvements have failed to make any significant improvements in the morale crisis at this Agency – a morale crisis that has been in existence since at least 2002. We are told every year that we didn’t get to this point overnight and we won’t get out of the hole we are in overnight. Well at what point do we start digging out instead of digging deeper?

The latest FEVS shows that, throughout government overall, positive responses were up. Any increases in positive responses for the BBG are probably just statistical “noise” — insignificant. The real news in this year’s results is that the BBG remains dead last in every index in its category. In the Employee Engagement Index–dead last. In the New IQ Index – dead last. Global Satisfaction Index – dead last. Finally, in the Human Capital Assessment and Accountability Framework – same story – dead last. For those keeping count, that is four for four; a total and complete failure.

If the past few years of morale improvement efforts have shown anything, it is that this Agency does not know how to improve employee morale; in fact, morale has gotten worse. Obviously, whatever tiny steps the Agency has utilized to improve morale have not been enough to significantly and adequately address the causes of the morale problem. This year’s FEVS is proof that better communication and more ice cream socials and poetry contests aren’t what improves morale. In fact, the case can be made that these social events worsen morale because they give the impression that management is focused on these activities rather than on actions that would truly improve morale, such as removing inefficient, demeaning, incompetent and ineffective managers. (Unfortunately for the Agency and its employees, that describes many managers.)

What is needed is a strong, serious effort that either results in significant improvements in morale or has real consequences for those managers who, in essence, are the driving force in the abysmal morale situation in the areas they oversee.

The Agency already has the tools needed to identify, in some cases even down to the language service level, those managers who oversee units that have higher morale levels as well as those managers who need to be removed from their positions and transferred to other, non-managerial, duties.

Given the robust 75% response rate to the survey, we can rightly say that Agency employees are not interested in any more upper management plans for “incremental baby step changes.” No more sugarcoating. No more dancing around the problems. No more concocting unrealistic, peripheral solutions. The Agency needs to make a real commitment and institute a “roll up the sleeves” attitude to seriously tackle and reverse the crisis situation that we are in. Managers overseeing units with low morale need to feel the heat and either raise the morale or lose their positions.

Low morale is a threat to the mission of any organization; conversely, high morale is a force multiplier. The Agency needs to understand that improving morale is not something that it should only focus on after all other tasks are accomplished; improving morale should be on the top of every manager’s list. Make no mistake: low morale is an existential threat to this Agency and its about time leaders and managers acknowledge that and do something about it.


Taking a Knee Could Get You Booted

The present dust up over NFL players who kneel during the traditional presentation of the flag and singing of the National Anthem at football games has all sorts of facets.

One facet that has not been fully explored is the issue of employees’ right to freely express themselves. Most of the news stories about this topic  cast this as a debate over the players’ right to exercise their First Amendment rights on the field which is their work space. They invoke the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as the guarantor. To clarify: the First Amendment prevents the government of the United States from making any law “abridging the freedom of speech”. But the current debate on the issue concerns the matter of the NFL (a private firm) allowing players to protest by kneeling during the presentation of the U.S. flag and playing of the National Anthem.

First, to make it clear: there are limits to any citizen’s free speech rights which are pretty much universally accepted in this country. Even though the right to protest or the right to express one’s views is protected by the First Amendment libel and slander are not protected. Neither is speech that is discriminatory or sexually harassing or likely to incite illegal activity.

Many employees, especially those who once lived under authoritarian rule, believe that they “live in a free country” and that the Constitution protects their freedom of speech from restrictions imposed on it by their employer. As the Gershwin song goes: It ain’t necessarily so. The First Amendment only protects citizens’ free speech against government restrictions. Constitutional rights do not necessarily apply at the work site and some court cases have established that the employer’s control over an employee’s speech may even extend beyond the work site and during non-work hours.

As employees of the federal government, the First Amendment does apply to members of the AFGE Local 1812 bargaining unit. However, even if you work for the federal government the courts have determined that it is a balancing act between the employee’s free speech rights and the impact of the employee’s speech on the Agency’s operations. We have had cases, for example, in which the agency has sought to discipline employees who have spoken to the press about problems they have identified at the Agency.

In the case of the NFL players, their employer is not the government but a private entity. The NFL probably could establish a policy that prohibits players from kneeling (or doing anything else that the NFL decided was detrimental to its operations or image) during the presentation of the National Anthem. AFGE Local 1812 is not suggesting that the NFL should do this, just that it probably could.

Although the First Amendment does not fully protect an employee’s right to free speech of any kind at work, there are some protections for private sector employees such as the whistleblower law. In addition, the National Labor Relations Act protects speech regarding wages, hours, and working conditions. But even then, there is a balancing act with the employer’s right to protect the business.

Kneeling during the National Anthem has been identified by the players as a protest about the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement. It is hard to see how this issue could be considered as being about wages, hours, or working conditions.

So, why does the law give one’s employer the right to restrict so much of one’s speech? It would be beneficial to see a more thoughtful discussion about the extent to which an employer has the right to restrict an employee’s speech. The present situation with the National Football League players’ protest could be the impetus to spark that healthy debate.

IF LEADERSHIP IS EXEMPLARY…. PRAISE IT

With the threat of Hurricane Irma barreling through the Caribbean towards Florida and threatening AFGE Local 1812 employees in the Miami area at Radio/TV Marti, we once again applaud the leadership of the Director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Malule Gonzalez.

In an effort to accommodate employees and most importantly, ensure their safety as well as to fulfill the broadcasting mission, Ms. Gonzalez implemented a plan of action that had two goals: 1) allow the employees and their families to make adequate preparations for their safety with flexible leave policies; and 2) enable the continuation of broadcasting operations of Radio/TV Marti .

To those ends, Director Gonzalez granted Administrative Leave to all Radio/TV Marti employees in Miami for Friday, September 8th so they could make preparations with their families. Director Gonzalez also approved a flex-leave policy for employees to use, if necessary, on Thursday, September 7th.

To keep programming on the air, the organization has prepared evergreen material which will be used from the Greenville Transmitting Station as well as from the Washington, D.C. studios. In addition, some Marti employees will be sent to Washington, D.C. so that live broadcast programming and updates can be provided.

To keep Radio/TV Marti employees informed once the monstrous storm system is gone from the area, an information hotline number was provided to employees so that weekend staff and all other employees could stay informed about the resumption of normal work schedules as well as for general guidance. Director Gonzalez also provided two additional telephone numbers which would be accessible for special guidance and concerns.

All are hoping that things will be back to normal by Monday, September 11th.

AFGE Local 1812 applauds the leadership of the management at Radio/TV Marti in Miami and in particular, the efforts of Director Gonzalez.

We add a reminder to keep our colleagues in Miami in our thoughts and prayers as they await the potential onslaught of Hurricane Irma.

THE IMPORTANCE OF AMERICA’S LABOR MOVEMENT

At the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, one organizer famously explained the motivation of union supporters by declaring: “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” With this simple, poetic expression, Rose Schneiderman invoked a common need for daily necessities, such as the bread we eat, but also the desire to enjoy the finer things of life, symbolized by a beautiful, flowering rose.

Labor unions have historically been an essential component in the continuing struggle by working people to raise living and social standards, with hopes that children and grand-children have ample opportunities for success and happiness. When unions have been strongest, working families have controlled our greatest proportion of the national wealth.

Through contract campaigns, shop-floor activism, community outreach, coalition building, legal challenges, political action and nationwide mobilizations, American’s labor unions have stood for:

  • Family-sustaining wages, with regular wage increases
  • A voice and a vote on workplace issues and conditions of employment
  • A 40-hour work week, with overtime pay for any more
  • A standard 8-hour work day, allowing for personal time and rest
  • Ending discriminatory employment practices by united action
  • Family health insurance, including vision and dental, with employers paying most
  • More healthful community standards
  • Paid vacations
  • Seniority rights
  • Fair scheduling of work
  • Workplace safety laws, rules, and personnel
  • Fire safety standards and a means to enforce them
  • Minimum wage laws
  • Protections from coercive power of employers, and defense against unfair treatment, discipline or discharge
  • Training and staff, so workers’ concerns are properly addressed
  • Legal and binding labor agreements with management, enforceable by law
  • The right to engage in concerted actions with co-workers for mutual self-improvement
  • A pro-worker base of support in our communities, with power and resources
  • Retraining assistance, leads on other good-paying jobs and other advantages of being a part of a network of like-minded men and women
  • Sticking up for other working people and helping out in their struggles
  • And unions stand for many, many more improvements that add up to a better deal for working people and their families

It’s no coincidence that the most meaningful anti-poverty social improvements – such as economic assistance for poor, disabled, unemployed, or for elderly Americans, such as Social Security – only came about when working people and our unions demanded it. The same can be said of America’s anti-discrimination laws. Unions and the labor movement are, at their core, an expression of the desires and demands of the working people themselves.

And on a larger scale, the labor movement makes sure that the power of the wealthy class does not run rough-shod over the rights of everyone else. On may levels, labor unions continue to expand the principles of equality that the United States was founded upon, and promote a more democratic society.

Of course, what is gained today can be lost tomorrow if not diligently protected. Our unions are a proven vehicle to safeguard hard-won gains, and to further the interests of working people through ever-changing times.

 

Commentary originally published in Pennsylvania Labor History Journal April, 2017 by Howard Scott


Hurricane Harvey Relief

As we have all watched the devastation in the Gulf coast, many have wondered how they might help.

AFGE President J. David Cox announced that AFGE has teamed up with the Federal Employees Education and Assistance Fund (FEEA) to help our fellow federal employees affected by Hurricane Harvey.

If you can spare a few dollars please consider donating  at the following link:

https://feea.z2systems.com/np/clients/feea/donation.jsp?campaign=19&&link_id=0&can_id=ffd5b8866ac195bc8a35e96f8c02e171&source=email-re-hurricane-harvey&email_referrer=re-hurricane-harvey&email_subject=re-hurricane-harvey

Not Worth the Paper . . .

Original post, July 5, 2017

In the Spring of 2017, as the Agency began to promote and encourage employee participation in the upcoming Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), the Broadcasting Board of Governors distributed a three-color printed document titled “Management Accountability Charter.” One of the points in the Charter was assurance that managers and supervisors of the Agency would ensure that employees work in a zero-tolerance environment for favoritism, retaliation and discrimination.

Less than two weeks after the Union received a copy of this Charter, we were informed by a bargaining unit employee that he had been retaliated against for being a whistleblower.

The employee had sent an email to CEO Lansing and VOA Director Bennett with copies to the Director of Human Resources and the Director of Management Services. The letter was notification that the employee believed his supervisor was committing prohibited personnel practices. Specifically, that the supervisor had given an unauthorized advantage to improve the prospects of a particular individual for a vacancy. He asked that his name not be revealed to his supervisor because he feared retaliation.

He heard nothing until on May 16th when he was presented with a Letter of Reprimand from his supervisor for specifically writing “false, malicious or unfounded statements against me”. The basis for the charge was the email he had sent to CEO Lansing and Director Bennett reporting his supervisor’s suspected prohibited personnel practices.

The annual OPM Employment Viewpoint Survey contains the statement: “I can disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal.” Positive responses by BBG employees to this statement are consistently well below the government average. Apparently nothing ever changes in the Agency which ranks at or near the very bottom among mid-sized federal agencies in the annual survey.

According to the Whistleblower Protection Act, a whistleblower may file a complaint if s/he reasonably believes that there is a violation of a law, rule or regulation; gross mismanagement, waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a danger to public health or safety. A prohibited personnel practice is a violation of federal law and this is what the employee believed he was reporting. Presumably, the employee is not tasked with proving the allegations. What should have happened is that the Agency should have investigated the allegations. If they proved true, then the situation should have been properly dealt with. If no prohibited personnel practice had taken place, the employee should have been informed of this fact and that should have ended the matter.

In discussions with management officials on this matter, it was their opinion that because there had been no vacancy announcement opened at the time of the employee’s email, the supervisor could not possibly have committed a prohibited personnel practice and it did not matter that the employee “suspected” that he had.

Therefore, apparently, the employee, or for that matter, any employee in this Agency, is fair game.

The Agency refused to remove the Letter of Reprimand. The Union has filed a grievance.

Wreath Laying Ceremony at VOC Memorial

Original post, June 15, 2017

It couldn’t have been a more beautiful summer morning on June 9, 2017 to hold the 10th annual ceremony at the Victims of Communism Memorial located on a triangle of land at the intersection of Massachusetts & New Jersey Avenues & G Street in northwest DC within view of the U.S. Capitol and 2 blocks from Union Station.

By 9 AM, the sidewalk leading up to the Lady Liberty monument of the VOC memorial was ablaze with colorful flower displays and wreaths of all shapes and forms from 23 embassies and over thirty ethnic and human rights organizations brought there to be placed at the foot of the memorial to commemorate the millions of victims of communism who perished throughout the world under totalitarian regimes. The brutal dictatorships which caused their deaths have now disappeared in many countries of Eastern & Central Europe, the Baltics and the USSR yet still flourish in many places in the world like Cuba, North Korea and China.

Before the roll-call of nations and organizations for the wreath-laying ceremony, several hundred people gathered to listen to the keynote speaker, Dr. Vytautus Landsbergis, a hero of the opposition movement in Lithuania during the Cold War, who became the head of the newly reestablished Lithuanian state, and helped shepherd the country through the process of writing a new constitution and establishing new governmental institutions. In his speech, Dr. Landsbergis spoke not only about Soviet brutality in Lithuania, but to the universality of communism’s attack on the human soul. And he warned: “The events of current days seem to be bringing us back in their direction, and new monuments for bloody dictators, like Stalin or the Kims, are still being erected.”

Dr. Landsbergis announced the recipient of the VOC Truman-Reagan medal this year: Dr. Mart Laar, a historian, professor, and scholar who became the first official Prime Minister of Estonia’s Second Republic in 1992.

All this history was running through the minds of the attendees as we lined up in the ceremonial line. AFGE Local 1812 Local President, Tim Shamble, and Union Legislative Coordinator, Marie Ciliberti carried the a beautiful, multi-colored wreath to the foot of the VOC memorial and placed it there in the name of the VOA China Branch broadcasters as well as on behalf of all the VOA and Radio/TV Marti broadcasters represented by AFGE Local 1812.

At the very end of the ceremony, there was a musical interlude offered by Wuilly Moisés Arteaga, a 23-year-old Venezuelan violinist and freedom advocate who recently became an icon of the movement protesting the abuses of the Maduro regime in Caracas. Wuilly gained worldwide attention in May when he joined the chaotic street protests.

“I went out to protest with my only weapon,” he told The Washington Post, referring to his violin.

While it was a somber event, it was also comforting to know that the people in the assembled crowd were there to remember the courage of those who fought the dark days of communism. From the stories of many who escaped tyranny, we know for a fact that our VOA broadcasts did give hope and comfort to many who were trapped behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains. Even though this dreadful system is not as prevalent as in the past, there are still places in the world that continue to suffer the stifling restrictions of this defunct political philosophy, places like Cuba, North Korea, and China. And it is making a resurgence in places like Russia.

The Union hopes to return to the VOC event once again next year.

Our Friend and Colleague Parichehr Farzam is Gone

Original post, June 6, 2017

Parichehr Farzam came to the United States from her native Iran after the takeover by the mullahs in 1979-80. Before emigrating to the U.S. through France almost four decades ago, she had held high-level government positions in her native Iran. Her obituary in the WASHINGTON POST mentions that she was the daughter of an Iranian princess by the name of Talat-el-Molouk Azodi Qajar.

A fighter for civil and women’s rights both In her native and adopted countries, Parichehr became an international broadcaster for the United States government advancing to the position of White House correspondent, first for Radio Farda and then for the VOA Persian Service, covering the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Parichehr served the Union and bargaining unit as a member of the Executive Board of AFGE Local 1812 and was also the Women’s Issues Coordinator for the Local. She was an extremely generous person especially with her time while representing her colleagues at work. She passed away after a long battle with cancer. Another battle she waged was against what she believed were discriminatory practices in the Agency in its disparate treatment and compensation of employees who worked for the VOA language services and the English services. She filed an EEO case when she found out that as a White House correspondent, for a VOA language service (Persian/Farsi), her salary was at least a full grade lower than the White House correspondent for VOA Central News who happened to be male.

This apparently drew the wrath of Agency officials. After filing her EEO complaint against the Agency she was instructed to cease acting as a White House correspondent. She did not accept this and continued, even at the risk of insubordination, to file reports from the White House. At the same time Parichehr was battling the BBG bureaucracy she was also battling cancer. Due to the effects of chemotherapy, she would often find it impossible to report to work. In answer, Agency officials put her on leave without pay before deciding to remove her entirely from Federal Service despite her many years of honorable service to her adopted country and the fact that she was losing her battle with the dread disease.

A little over a month after the Agency officially removed Parichehr from Federal Service she passed away.

To the very end, and true to her nature, Parichehr Farzam remained unbowed and undefeated.

Applause for TSP Training

Original post, April 14, 2017

We want to offer our compliments to the Agency’s training department for finally arranging TSP training for the employees. After the Union informed the department a few months ago that the Thrift Savings Program offered free training in the DC area, the Agency began to work with the TSP to schedule training. The first class, in early April, was completely full with almost three dozen employees having to be turned away.

Other classes have been scheduled and we have no doubt that they, too, will be popular. We hope that the obvious and overwhelming demand for these classes will motivate the Agency to continue to offer them. The Agency has not offered these classes for many years, and we are happy that the agency responded to our suggestion to offer them.

The key is consistency: this kind of training should be offered at least twice a year to all employees, with no lapses after the latest one in 2017. Because TSP does not charge the Agency for classes in the DC area (and only charges expenses for training outside the DC area), we see no reason for the Agency not to offer them.

It may also help improve morale at VOA. TSP training is something that OPM expects all federal agencies to offer their employees.

In addition, we have TSP training materials here at the union office for BBG employees, and one of our stewards recently attended a three-day-long training class at TSP headquarters. While we cannot give investment advice, we can certainly help you understand some of the technical aspects of the retirement savings program and give you personal attention. Just call or drop by and we will help you.

We will continue to work with the training department to encourage the agency to offer more TSP training, including for those at the mid-career level and those planning to retire soon. We encourage the agency to also offer retirement training and other kinds of financial planning training, including that provided by the nearby Graduate School USA.

We are also glad that the Agency is considering offering TSP training to our employees in Miami.

This a real plus for all employees. Again, kudos for the quick response.