By Edwin Osorio 2nd Vice President
The Harlem Globetrotters are an exhibition basketball team that spans the globe and has appeared in many various iterations since they launched their brand of sports comedy. They began their illustrious history on the Southside of Chicago in 1926. Even though they began as a serious sports team, they evolved into a team that was more interested in the entertainment aspect than the competition. The commonality of all of its teams is the comic routines, acrobatic tricks, musical skits, and outlandish performances that have kept spectators enthralled and thoroughly entertained. At the pinnacle of their success, a 24 year consecutive winning streak of 8,829 games eventually came to an end in 1995. To date they have lost only 345 games out of over 27,000 games in nine decades.
Only one other phenomenon of such predictable conquests enters the collective consciousness of the SSA bargaining unit psyche: ignominiously found in the arena of the grievance process. It’s fair to say that like professional wrestling and the aforementioned Harlem Globetrotters where prescience was a perfunctorily certain aspect, SSA bargaining unit employees have been unequivocally and routinely conditioned to believe their grievances were predetermined before ever making a presentation to management. However, this is where the forgoing parallels end. There is no sport or entertainment value involving Article 24 of the National “Disagreement” that prevails over the involved parties ability to resolve complaints in a timely and equitable manner. After all, just ask SSA; even though their records aren’t readily available, SSA employees anecdotally and innately know they win less than one percent of their grievances.
This inherently creates a natural resistance to the only process available to bargaining unit employees to resolve complaints. The resistance is so strong, employees metaphorically embrace hostile work environments, bullying, implicit and sometimes explicit injurious biases, and various other harmful conditions of work that have employees overly fatigued, overwhelmed, stressed out, in some cases feeling hopeless, and always feeling vulnerable to the whims of management; but they all have one common denominator: because of their feelings of managerial harassment, they all experience a detachment from their work that results in underperformance and diminished productivity to the best of their abilities. It’s just a fact that a work environment that is low in morale will not be naturally conducive to productivity.
Interdependence theory would suggest that employees are conditioned to stay quiet and take no action when they feel mistreated by management. Their past experiences lead them to believe that the alternative of exposing themselves to a rigged system with a predetermined outcome would be far more harmful to their careers and leave them vulnerable, so instead employees repress their feelings and recede into a mental and emotional hibernation. Many employees intuitively believe that by enduring the managerial abuse, they can stay under the radar and evade management’s proverbial “black list.” With no empirical experiences to support their rationale, employees are conditioned to believe that by enduring management’s abusive behavior, the behavior will improve on its own—instead of calling attention to the situation by filing a grievance. Like a battered wife that stays with her husband, employees are conditioned to believe that exposing their feelings of exploitation and diminished dignity from management misconduct, their “husbands” will beat them far worse than their past beatings.
Why has this belief been so indoctrinated into employees? Because the grievance process has never truly been a viable path for employees to be legitimately heard; employees believe that they will not be heard. The First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution states in part “…and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances;” this is a right that in reality does not extend to bargaining unit employees of Social Security. All one would have to do to know this is to understand the process and be familiar with the agency’s role of participation in the grievance process. There are three steps in the grievance process in SSA operations; these three steps are heard by the operations supervisor, district manager, and area director respectively. Intuitively, you would think that step one might be equivalent to a trial court and in most cases a court of origination.
The fact is that SSA is so dismissive of the grievance process they give their operatives virtually no training in the process. Incredulously, the first time the many supervisors learn anything about their function in the grievance process is when they learn that they are required to hear a grievance (hearing an oral or written presentation is a euphemism for being a glorified and highly paid note taker and non-participant). Often the supervisor that is listening to the presentation is the subject of the complaint. In a trial court setting this would make the supervisor the defendant. This brings up a serious conflict of impartiality. Even with proper training it would be very difficult to execute impartiality as an arbiter if the decision maker was also the subject of the complaint. It would be instinctual to defend the action being complained about since it was the supervisor’s judgement in the first place that the action was appropriate. This is most definitely a case of the arsonist and the fire marshal being the same person.
Even when the supervisor is not the subject of the grievance, the supervisor is still an employee and an operative of the “defendant,” the agency. There is an implicit self-serving motivation to support the actions management, especially when this could be seen as a willingness to advocate the agency’s agenda and it also serves as an audition for a promotion in the future. The supervisor will never find a benefit to faithfully listening to the complaint and potentially going against the agency’s wishes. Because there is no training to discourage this kind of thinking, the results are always in the agency interests, further perpetuating the agency’s belief that training is not beneficial.
When a supervisor is the subject of the grievance, the supervisor is usually accused of some gross misconduct or some other impropriety. When feeling attacked, it is a natural instinct to defend oneself. However, in the case of the supervisor, he/she will simply write everything down (supposedly) and leave all accusations unrebutted and unchallenged. In a trial court setting, this would infer that the defendant is taking the fifth to avoid self-incrimination. Because it defies natural instinct, it would be reasonable to conclude that supervisors are instructed not to be active participants in the grievance process. This is undoubted a tactic that reduces the grievance process to a farce; nothing more than a venting session for the employee with no chance of a remedy and no willingness on the part of the agency to reach a mutual resolution since there is no mutuality in the process. More aptly put, the grievant is effectively deprived of the right to face their agitator and the supervisor is suppressed by the process from addressing their accuser during the presentation (hearing). As the only agency endorsed method for resolving complaints, this is an ineffective yet proprietary mechanism that only has the appearance of a good faith apparatus to resolve conflicts between employees and management, and only provides the appearance of dispute resolution.
In accordance with the 2019 National “Disagreement” and prior contracts- after the supervisor hears an oral presentation and/or receives a written presentation that is the equivalent to the prosecution’s argument in a trial, the supervisor is required to render a decision in writing. In contravention of the contract, the supervisor rarely ever renders a decision and with perfidy to the process, an operative from the agency’s labor-management team will write the decision. For arbitration purposes, this is usually depicted as an agency recommendation with the supervisor’s right to deviate from the written document he/she is provided. Once again, a supervisor diverging from agency guidance will always be understood implicitly as career suicide. Therefore, supervisors will always obsequiously acquiesce to the will of the agency, and even sign the bottom of the written decision to falsely signify their own authorship of the decision. This is a falsification of governmental documents that is endorsed by the agency.
The process is repeated through step two and step three compounding the employee’s frustration and perpetuating the futility of the process. Despite the perfunctory denials that are issued to employees seemingly adjudicated before their complaints are even recapitulated, the agency still goes through the official pageantry of the process; duly misappropriating millions of tax payer funded dollars in pursuit of the “great charade.” The great charade is the travesty of insulting the intelligence of employees by continuing the grievance process even though it is not meant to resolve conflicts.
The Classic Example of Cognitive Dissonance
Boy tells girl he likes her and would like to go out with her. Girl says she doesn’t return his feelings and does not wish to go out with him. Boy says he never liked her in the first place and would never want to go out with her. This is a textbook example of cognitive dissonance. Another example of cognitive dissonance would be SSA relying upon its bargaining unit employees to discharge its mission to competently and compassionately provide assistance and financial security to the elderly and disabled—our most vulnerable. This not only requires a high level of competence, it also requires a great level of critical and analytical acumen because of the complex rules and regulations of the agency. All in all, the bargaining unit must be very skilled to meet the goals of the agency with efficiency and effectiveness.
The agency must somehow reconcile the preceding supposition with the inordinate number of grievances the same bargaining unit brings forth with such an infinitesimal modicum of success. It could be concluded from empirical data that the bargaining unit employees with such an anemic record for success must be incapable of managing its own welfare and should most certainly not be trusted with the welfare of the American public. And yet, the bargaining unit, while completely inept at prosecuting grievances is stellar when it comes to serving the American public. This would all be counterintuitive to say the least if this was as simple as it seems. But we have to think back to the Harlem Globetrotter allegory to understand that they didn’t simply beat their opponents by outperforming them, they dominated the other teams because they controlled the outcome from the outset. The other teams never had a chance and neither does the bargaining unit employees of SSA. The reality is that the grievance process has been systemically appropriated and subjugated to the agency’s predispositions in order to secure the outcome that would benefit the agency and secure its hegemonic dominance over the bargaining unit employees.
When a group of people become oppressed to the point they have no trust in the process and through the course of events are relegated to second class citizens—or in this case second class employees—the hopelessness permeates the bargaining unit employees until they feel stripped of their civic pride derived from the virtue of their chosen vocation. The agency has always employed and enjoyed a double standard for its operatives. The agency takes very seriously the Standards of Ethical Conduct for the Executive Branch when they are applied to the bargaining unit. When a bargaining unit employee is accused of misconduct they are subjected to disciplinary action that goes up to and includes termination. When agency operatives abuse and exploit employees and behave in a manner unbecoming of a federal employee, it is ignored. Under exceptional circumstances the agency will recognize its inferior position in a grievance and instead of acknowledging culpability, it will simply agree to a settlement with no precedential value. Only the most egregious of cases are addressed. These few occurrences normally result in a transfer to another office—so the operative can begin terrorizing a new group of employees immediately. In many cases it is an office that is closer to the operative’s home, reducing their commute. Sometimes an operative gets their own parking spot when one was not previously available. In two instances that come to mind, the operative was promoted to a higher pay grade. One operative only received a proverbial slap on the wrist after being indirectly implicated in the death of a subordinate. A short time after the case was settled out of court the operative was restored to the same position.
A grievance process that is governed and administered by a party that is also bound by its own rules and predominantly the respondent is anathema to the purpose of the procedure and inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement. This has created mistrust within the bargaining unit; in its present form the grievance process will cause irreparable harm to the bargaining unit employees. It is important to have a grievance process that inspires the trust of the bargaining unit and does not blindly protect the accused, the perpetrator, or the defendant, or allow the aforementioned to control adjudicatory review, self-adherence to rules, regulations, and law, and the infrastructure that regulates and maintains orderly conduct and the protections of rights and privileges. Those that normally enjoy such unconditional oversight are despots, authoritarians, monarchs, and Social Security. We should no longer facilitate the pretense of a fair and equitable venue for the bargaining unit and demand an end to the disparate control, manipulation, and circumvention of laws and regulations through the unfettered interpretation and the absence of consequence for deviating from due process and just cause.
In 1896 the U. S. entered a dark time in its history with the adoption of “Separate but Equal” Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case that created a double standard for the purpose of discriminating against African Americans. It took until 1954 when the fragmentary acts of change began with Brown V. Board of Education. Similarly, SSA has misappropriated the grievance process and created a double standard between the bargaining unit employees and the operatives of the agency. We are now in need of a reformation of the grievance process that has the transformational magnitude of the same. We can no longer be guided by the assumption of fairness by SSA because history has shown us that an abundance of leverage one party has over another leads to an abuse of discretion. If true justice is to be restored to the bargaining unit employees, SSA’s grievance process needs to be administered by a third party that can determine consequences to both parties equally. This grievance process is a formal recognition of dispute and there should be incentives built into the process to resolve such disputes informally and in good faith. There should be incentives to reach resolutions prior to reaching the formal stage of the grievance process. And when the grievance process is invoked, it should be decided completely meritoriously on the facts and not predetermined by the party with all of the leverage and baring none of the consequences of acting with impunity. When there is a restoration of true parity in the grievance process, there will be a true path towards the efficiency and effectiveness in federal service.
 In September of 2019 SSA gave AFGE the choice of accepting its draconian terms for a new contract or to have three presidential executive orders that would essentially deprive employees of due process and any semblance of just cause while simultaneously eliminating the union’s ability to represent the employees in any meaningful manner imposed upon the bargaining unit. This left the Union with no choice but to accept under duress the contract the agency advocated. The Union never had a real choice.