BY ROBERT J. SILVERMAN
In my initial courtesy calls on several senior State Department officials, a common theme went something like this: “Why did you AFSA guys represent an individual in case x, when his interests went against the common good of your membership? How do you reconcile the roles of professional association and labor union?”
These are serious questions, ones that lead me to offer the following observations about our organization’s dual roles, and about the dynamic between individual rights and the collective good. On a lighter note, I’ll end with a quiz about the Foreign Service.
The easiest part of management’s complaint to dismiss is the idea that AFSA’s roles as professional association and labor union are in conflict. As a union, AFSA represents the interests of the Foreign Service collective bargaining unit, which is comprised of all FS members except certain management officials. The bargaining unit also happens to contain nearly all members of our professional association. Many management officials are AFSA members active in the professional association.
Both the union and the association share the same interests in ensuring that assignment, promotion and discipline systems are fair and transparent, and comply with the Foreign Affairs Manual and U.S. law. Both are interested in maintaining and raising the Foreign Service’s high standards of professionalism.
It may be unusual for one organization to play both roles, but AFSA is not unique. The Screen Actors Guild, for example, is also both, though its award ceremony is more elaborate than ours. The National Education Association is another example of a dual-hatted entity.
The harder part to dismiss is that of a possible conflict of interest between individual representation and the collective good. For instance, management alleges that AFSA filed and won a grievance on behalf of individual members undergoing a State Department investigative process, and these victories prompted State to reconsider the process intended to benefit a wider group of Foreign Service members.
The other side of the story comes from AFSA’s lawyers. They focus on the due process rights of the individual, and if it appears there has been an abuse or failure to comply with existing rules, they assist the member in seeking redress through established forums, such as the Foreign Service Grievance Board. But that redress is limited to the correction of individual problems, and is not intended to overturn systems and processes that benefit the collective Foreign Service.
Generally speaking, there should not be a contradiction between the due process rights of individuals and the overall collective good. My sincere hope is that managers perceive AFSA’s support for individuals’ rights as one of the checks and balances that, along with the department’s own internal reviews, ensures systems designed for the collective good work properly in practice. If an individual grievance causes management to rethink a policy or process, perhaps that is a sign that it needs to be tweaked— not done away with.
If a conflict of interest would arise between AFSA’s obligations to the collective bargaining unit or its members, and an individual’s right of redress, AFSA lawyers would refer the individual to outside counsel. Luckily, our lawyers and outside counsel have both assured me that such situations are rare. But I appreciate hearing of them.
And now for the quiz! Please reply to me at the e-mail address below with your answers. The first five respondents who answer at least three of the questions correctly will receive AFSA’s handsome, industrial-size coffee mug.
Answers will be in the December Journal. Until then, be well, stay safe and keep in touch.