Colleen Kelley was content working as a revenue agent for the Internal Revenue Service in Pittsburgh before she was tapped in 1988 for a staff position with the National Treasury Employees Union in Washington, D.C.
But she took the job and moved to the nation's capital with the attitude, "I'll try this. I'm not sure it will be a good thing."
Two decades later she is still based in Washington where she eventually jumped from membership director to national president of the union that represents 150,000 workers in 31 federal agencies ranging from the IRS to the Department of Homeland Security and the Food and Drug Administration.
Ms. Kelley returned to her hometown to watch the Super Bowl with family and took the opportunity to talk about the NTEU's recommendations for the Obama Administration.
Education: Bachelor of science, accounting, Drexel University, 1973; Master of business administration, University of Pittsburgh, 1980.
Career: 1973-87: revenue agent, Internal Revenue Service, Pittsburgh; 1988-95: director of membership, National Treasury Employees Union, Washington, D.C.; 1995-1999: executive vice president, NTEU; 2000-present, national president, NTEU.
Q: How did the NTEU come to represent such a diverse mix of federal workers?
A: Our union started in 1938 representing only IRS employees. ... In 1975, employees of the U.S. Customs Service joined us. They were then part of the U.S. Treasury Department and now are part of the Department of Homeland Security. Then other Treasury agencies like the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms joined us.
And there was a decision that we would expand outside of Treasury and we've just grown as federal employees see the work we do on issues surrounding pay, retirement, health insurance and employee rights. They want NTEU to be their voice.
Every once in a while the question comes up about whether we should change our name because we are so much more than Treasury workers. But there's such name recognition attached to our history ... for the moment all the agencies and members like staying with NTEU and what we stand for.
Q: What do you hope to achieve under the new president's administration?
A: We have a transition document where we have made recommendations for legislative and administrative action.
One issue is collective bargaining. Some employees in Homeland Security still don't have it [such as] the Transportation Security Administration employees who work at all the airports. We've identified this as an issue that could be done by Congress or the administration.
I think the biggest thing you will see happen, and we have seen every sign of it from President Barack Obama and his administration already, is just a change in the tone of how they work with the unions and front-line employees.
We are looking for a return to what we used to call partnership. I don't really care what it's called. For me, it's about collaboration. Many of the federal agencies were not as focused on their missions as they should have been the last eight years. They haven't been funded to deliver on their missions. We're looking forward to working with the Obama administration to change that.
Another issue we've identified is contracting out work. the Bush administration set that as a priority. They had language passed to allow the IRS to contract out collection work. ...So we're hoping the new administration will review all the contracts and where the work isn't being done well; let's bring it back to the federal government.
Q: Has the Obama staff been receptive?
A: Yes. We have worked with the transition team, given them suggestions; and throughout the campaign, President Obama talked about working with the federal employees and unions. He's recognized the contributions federal employees make. I was just at the White House (Jan. 30) while he was signing some executive orders to undo some things the prior administration did.
Q: Do you think the nation's economic downturn could impact the jobs of any workers you represent?
A: At this point, we have not had notice from any of the agencies about layoffs. What we have seen over the last couple of years, and I expect it will continue, is that vacancies will not be filled. In agencies like the IRS where a large part of the work force is seasonal, when budgets become an issue you'll see those seasons shortened. What we have seen is a decrease in agency funding. The IRS alone has 20,000 fewer employees than it did 10 years ago.
Q: Union membership in the private sector is on the decline. Can you maintain the union ranks in government?
A: I hope [the decline] doesn't continue. Many employees we represent are not in occupations you might think are traditionally part of a labor union. They are not manufacturing occupations. They are accountants, lawyers, scientists, secretaries, transportation workers, law enforcement officers. What they all share is a recognition that when they speak with one voice and stand together, there's a much better chance of having their issues addressed than addressing them alone.
Q: How did growing up in a predominantly blue-collar neighborhood in what used to be a heavily unionized city shape your views as a union leader?
A: I do know many of our members come from backgrounds that never had those experiences of being part of something bigger than yourself: being part of a union. Sometimes it takes them a while to recognize the value.
Q: How do you sell union membership to government employees who don't have to join?
A: When I was a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, if you worked in a place that was organized, you were automatically part of the union. In the federal government, there is nothing automatic about it. You can be a member or not a member. There is no such thing as a closed shop in the federal sector.
So our job of information, education and recruitment is on-going every day. For some people it's just a natural. Others would say, "I always thought I was a good employee and I can take care of myself." But then they're in a situation where they recognize that one-on-one conversations, no matter how good they are, and no matter how good their supervisor is, that's not where a lot of decisions get made. When they speak with one voice and stand together, there's a much better chance of having issues addressed whether it's pay, family and medical leave, bid and rotation for jobs, health care, or just employee rights in general.
Q: The NTEU represents FDA workers who some people are blaming for faulty inspections that resulted in the recent peanut butter recalls. Could they have done anything differently?
A: There are only 13 inspections labs in the whole country. About two years ago, the Bush administration wanted to close seven of them. We got wind of it and just stormed [Capitol Hill] ... and got them not to close any. But even the 13 are understaffed, and the staffing has gone down over the years. ... It's about funding and resources.
Q: What leadership skills do you tap to manage your staff and represent so many different types of workers?
A: I like to think I'm inclusive and a good listener. But I will be the first to admit those are things I pay attention to and I work hard at. I think I've developed over time, but I can always do better.
I travel a lot and do a lot on e-mail. E-mail is a good tool, but you can send the wrong message when you're being short and sending brief messages. So I spend a lot of time in face-to-face meetings with NTEU leaders.
Joyce Gannon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1580.