Astrue Rebuked by Arbitrator
In one of his most contentious actions, Commissioner Astrue tried to increase control over SSA’s Administrative Law Judges in a manner that would have undermined their independence from the agency and weakened their ability to provide fair hearings to disability applicants. He did this by attempting to create National Hearing Centers to sidestep the administrative judges’ union. The arbitrator found, among other things:
- The creation of the non-union NHCs was “…a sea change in how the Agency plans to operate in the future…” and it was a “calculated decision” by the commissioner to avoid obligations under the collective bargaining agreement. The commissioner’s actions “circumvented the bargaining unit altogether” and was intended to “severely undermine the union’s authority and permanently deny numerous employees, who are clearly doing bargaining unit work, their right of representation.”
- The commissioner exhibited a temperament far beyond what should be expected of any public servant. Astrue treated the judge representatives “in an abrupt, abusive and hostile manner.” The judges testified, the “most hostile and chilling meeting they had ever attended.” Judge Frye, (former) Deputy General Counsel of the NLRB and NLRB Regional Director “had never been treated in such a discourteous manner” and after such a long government service career, at that meeting he fully appreciated how threatened a union member could feel.”
- Commissioner Astrue conducted a meeting that was “decidedly anti-union in tone and the Commissioner exhibited a complete disdain for any bargaining with the union…” “[Astrue] was rude, angry, hostile, and discourteous toward Judge Bernoski and Judge Frye, to a level beyond which either of the two experienced judges had ever experienced.”
- Â The “Commissioner clearly exhibited anti-union animus in violation of the Statute” and that Astrue “made it abundantly clear that he intended to circumvent the CBA. He conducted himself in a way deliberately calculated to instill fear in the union representatives.”
Members of a Senate Subcommittee on Social Security were so concerned about the strained relations reported by the arbitrator that they contacted Commissioner Astrue’s Chief of Staff to request additional meetings between the commissioner and the AALJ, but no new meetings have been scheduled.