Page 50 - Foreign Service Journal - December 2012

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AFSA Has Your Back When You Need It Most
Views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the AFSA State VP.
Close to 85 percent of the
active-duty Foreign Service
are members of the Ameri-
can Foreign Service Associa-
tion, which serves both as
the professional association
and the union for the Foreign
Service. Of the 15 percent or
so who don’t join AFSA, many
object to its role as a union.
While some are against the
entire concept of unions, oth-
ers feel that membership in
one is somehow out of sync
with their role as profession-
To quote one AFSA critic,
“AFSA fosters a trade-union
mentality among the Foreign
Service, and promotes a
‘management-labor’ relation-
ship between the Depart-
ment of State’s leadership
and the Foreign Service,
instead of the professional-
to-professional relationship
that I think would be more
Everyone is entitled to his
or her own point of view on
the subject, of course. Here
is mine.
The Foreign Service is
indeed a profession, and a
noble one, at that. Like doc-
tors and lawyers, our tools
are knowledge, experience
and analytical ability, and
our work product is based
on a unique combination of
those resources. Like military
ofcers, we serve the most
important interests of our
nation, and have an ethical
obligation to put our nation’s
interests ahead of our own.
It is a way of life, a higher
calling, and a great deal more
than a job.
Unlike doctors and
lawyers, however, we work
for a monopoly employer.
If a doctor disagrees with
the personnel practices of a
given hospital, he can change
hospitals or put out a shingle
and go into private practice.
A lawyer or architect could
do the same. We cannot.
Unlike the military, we do
not enjoy the due process
protections aforded soldiers
under the Uniform Code of
Military Justice, nor those
soldiers and veterans enjoy
under other laws. Key issues
afecting our careers—such
as retention of a security
clearance, selection for
assignments and promo-
tion—are decided with little
or no transparency, and in
some cases, less opportunity
for appeal than our col-
leagues in uniform have.
Moreover, the military has
millions of voters defending
its interests with Congress.
Lacking the size and constit-
uency of the military and Civil
Service, we are a much more
frequent target for political
attacks than either.
The Foreign Service Act
gives our employer broad lee-
way to establish and change
the terms of our employ-
ment, and broader leeway
than the military or Civil Ser-
vice employers to investigate
us, discipline us or terminate
our employment. That is one
reason why the legislation
specifcally empowers AFSA
to negotiate with manage-
ment on these issues.
Congress, representing the
American people whom
we serve, felt that fairness
required giving us a voice in
decisions afecting the terms
of our service. Consequently,
AFSA’s authority does not
derive from its membership,
but from law; and every FS
member, whether they join
AFSA or not, is represented
when AFSA carries out its
legally mandated role as the
voice of the Foreign Service
to management.
That role is usually carried
out collaboratively. Because
most of our senior inter-
locutors are Foreign Service
members, and many are
AFSA members themselves,
the interaction is clearly
between members of the
same profession, occupying
diferent roles in a process
intended to make manage-
ment aware of the opinions
of the practitioners of our
profession. The vast majority
of our meetings are collegial,
usually aimed at seeking fair,
practical ways to achieve
mutually agreed-upon objec-
tives. We discuss terms of
employment and service—
not salary—and we seek
to ensure fairness and due
process in systems that are
often far from perfect.
A key component of that
process is AFSA’s ability to
represent clients in deal-
ings with their employer,
ranging from disputes over
reimbursement for travel or
medical expenses, assistance
with assignments issues,
grievances over evaluations,
to responding to allegations
in security clearance or disci-
plinary matters.
To be clear: employees
who choose not to join AFSA
do not diminish AFSA’s role
as the voice of the For-
eign Service. They merely
eliminate their own ability to
seek AFSA assistance in the
event that they themselves,
as individuals, require help in
dealing with their employer.
A number of such issues
involve executive branch
authorities not challengeable
in court, and most involve
regulations specifc to the
Foreign Service. Without
AFSA membership, any
career issue that may arise
must be dealt with on one’s
own, or with the costly assis-
tance of one of a handful of
attorneys knowledgeable
about the Foreign Afairs
The decision to join AFSA,
or any bargaining unit, is a
personal one. However, it is
clear that those who wrote
the laws creating the Foreign
Service foresaw the need
for collective bargaining to
inform the broad authorities
granted agency ofcials. The
vast majority of our col-
leagues understand that their
own interests as profession-
als are protected by having
recourse to knowledgeable
assistance when it is most