100 AoC workers join union over decision to 'de-skill'

A trade union has filed a petition with the legislative branch’s Office of Compliance (OoC) to begin organizing what would be the largest group of Architect of the Capitol (AoC) employees to belong to one labor organization.

An AoC decision to “de-skill” many of the workers who maintain the Library of Congress’s buildings and grounds fueled the move to organize roughly 100 employees. Smaller groups of AoC employees belong to several other unions.

Most AoC maintenance workers are required to have specific skills, such as expertise in plumbing or electrical work, but recently the AoC has changed their job descriptions, causing the workers to perform several duties that they may or may not be trained for.

“This is a special, special place,” said one AoC employee who spoke to The Hill under the condition of anonymity, referring to Congress. “To watch the quality of the service deteriorate is heartbreaking.”

The employee said he is concerned that allowing workers to continue to operate on the Capitol complex in jobs they are not trained for could cause a number of problems. For example, he said, allowing untrained personnel to maintain climate controls around sensitive book collections at the Library of Congress could result in damage to the collections, should a mistake occur.

“It takes a long time to train to work around sensitive materials and do it properly,” he said.

The Capitol-area local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) filed the motion to conduct “representational elections” among eligible employees from certain trades within the AoC on June 1.

The OoC, which applies workplace regulations to the legislative branch, has sent a letter to AoC management to validate the signatures on the petition, according to Carl Goldman, executive director of AFSCME Council 26. He said he expects the process of unionizing all 100 employees to continue to move forward in the coming weeks.

A spokeswoman for the OoC confirmed that the office had received the petition and that the process of conducting elections has begun.

Several workers who spoke to The Hill anonymously, out of fear of retaliation, said they were frustrated with the AoC decision to change their positions.

“There is absolutely no communication to find out why this change has occurred,” an AoC employee said. “All we have are hallway rumors.”

The employee said many workers fear that they AoC is “setting up the skilled workers for failure” and will use the opportunity to bring contracted employees into the agency in their place. Several employees said they sought out the union so they could have protection from what they describe as unfair management practices.

Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the AoC, said the change was made “to improve efficiencies and building operations.”

“Among these efforts is to provide our employees with training to enhance their skill sets and create cross-training opportunities,” she said in an e-mail.

“Joining a union will give us a voice,” said an employee, who argued that most complaints expressed to management go unaddressed.

In a letter last month to local members of Congress, several employees who work as plumbers, electricians and maintenance trades expressed concern that assigning employees to jobs they were not trained to do would create safety problems for precious materials such as historical documents in some congressional buildings and for the workers themselves.

“This change to general maintenance could lead to plumbers being sent to address electrical problems, for example,” the letter said.

The letter requested that local representatives contact the AoC to find out the cause of the change.

Union officials declined to say which members of Congress were contacted, although they said they are confident of “a positive response from the representatives and senators.”

A spokeswoman for the AoC did not return a call for comment.