The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2023

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2023 27 FOCUS AFSA AS A UNION AT 50 H alf a century ago, a few dozen Foreign Service officers led the effort to combine AFSA’s mission as a genteel professional association with the authority of a union empowered to negotiate with foreign affairs agencies for the interests of its members. The importance of becoming a union may not be obvious to current members of the Foreign Service. This article seeks to explain why it matters. No Rights, No Recourse In 1969 State Department FSO Charles WilliamThomas was separated from the Foreign Service after being passed over for promotion. Only 47 years old, with just 18 years of service, he did not qualify for a pension. After nearly two years of unsuccessful job searching, he committed suicide in despair, leaving a widow and young daughter. Problems were belatedly discovered with his file that the promotion boards reviewed. A laudatory evaluation report from the Office of Inspector General had been misfiled in another offi- cer’s file. Mr. Thomas had not been allowed to see and rebut the single negative evaluation report in his file. Instead of encourag- ing boards to carefully consider employees in their final year of promotion eligibility, the promotion precepts cautioned against promoting such individuals. This all happened because employees in those days had few rights. The personnel systemwas run by an old boy network of senior officers whomanaged the Foreign Service as they saw fit. Decisions on promotions and selection-out were not reviewable, either within the agency or by an independent third party. Employ- ees were not allowed to see all the comments nor could they seek removal of falsely prejudicial remarks. Promotion and assignment rules were set without input from employee advocates. The Thomas tragedy was just the highest-profile example of an unaccountable personnel system. Because it coincided with AFSA’s rise to becoming a union, AFSA was able to step in to press for reforms. As an independent employee advocate, AFSA went directly to Congress to seek legislation creating a Foreign Service grievance system (established in 1976) to provide due process to employees deprived of a right or benefit authorized by law or regulation. As an energetic employee advocate, AFSA convinced the State Department to adopt the “annuity excep- tion” allowing FS-2s and below, like Mr. Thomas, to remain on active duty to age 50 to qualify for a pension (that rule remains in effect a half century later). John K. Naland is a retired Foreign Service officer serving his third term as AFSA retiree vice president. He earlier served twice as AFSA president and once as AFSA State vice president. In becoming a union, AFSA gained new powers to influence the personnel system and safeguard the interests of career diplomats. BY JOHN K . NALAND AFSA Becomes a Union Why It Matters