- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

A trans-Atlantic row between a U.S. union and the British government became more contentious yesterday.

A union representing British Embassy workers is pressuring Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government to recognize nondiplomatic employees.

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) said it will file a complaint with the International Labour Organization (ILO), an agency of the United Nations, accusing Britain of violating international labor standards by refusing to recognize the union.

Union leaders are putting pressure on the British government because it has failed to live up to a promise to discuss new work rules or formal recognition of the union local, said Andy Banks, the union’s organizing director.

“They’ve broken every promise they’ve made,” Mr. Banks said.

Peter Hayes, the head of administration at the embassy, said he was disappointed by the union’s decision to ask the ILO to intervene because talks just got under way.

Employees at the embassy, on Massachusetts Avenue Northwest, already are represented by Britain’s Association of United States Engaged Staff (AUSES), which negotiates between management and other employees but isn’t a union.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw wrote in a letter dated March 17 to Brendan Barber, general secretary of Britain’s Trades Union Congress, that he was prepared to discuss a voluntary agreement with the union.

Subsequently, Mr. Hayes has said the British government doesn’t have to recognize the union because it does not think workers there are covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

Talks about new work rules that took effect April 1, a new labor agreement and the conditions under which the embassy will recognize the union have stalled since a meeting March 28.

No new meetings are scheduled.

On Feb. 23, AUSES said it decided to affiliate with IFPTE, based in Silver Spring. A majority of the 630 nondiplomatic employees at the embassy, consulates and U.N. mission signed statements indicating they wanted to join IFPTE, according to the union.

Workers — whose duties include everything from serving as drivers to processing visas and working as policy advisers — were seeking protection from work-rule changes that took effect last Friday and alter pay, overtime and sick-leave policies, Mr. Banks said.

Workers no longer are able to save sick time by carrying over unused sick leave from one year to another. They have been able to bank up to nine months’ sick time. The embassy also eliminated automatic annual pay increases and instituted a performance-based system to determine raises. Changes in overtime policy also mean some workers no longer qualify for overtime pay.

Many changes were driven by a desire to have work rules comply with U.S. employment law, Mr. Hayes said.

But the changes were put in place without any discussion with the union, said Mr. Banks, who objected to about 10 percent of the work-rule changes but said he had no recourse to influence the new policies.

Mr. Hayes said the embassy hasn’t ruled out recognizing the union or negotiating a collective bargaining agreement.

The union hopes to make the Labor Party’s refusal to bargain with them an issue in the current campaign for prime minister. Mr. Blair on Tuesday called for an election to be held May 5.

“We have no choice but to bring the Labor Party’s — I won’t say lies — but factual inexactitudes” to light, Mr. Banks said.

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