U.S. Derivatives Overseers Flirt With Union as Salaries Squeezed

May 01, 2014 12:01 am ET

May 1 (Bloomberg) -- Fed up with pay packages that are smaller than other financial regulators, some workers at the U.S. agency that oversees the derivatives market have begun discussing whether to join a union.

A group of non-management Commodity Futures Trading Commission employees attended a lunchtime meeting April 10 at a Washington bar to hear a pitch from the National Treasury Employees Union, according to an e-mail sent to some staff members at the agency. The message offered a complimentary meal and said to “bring your friends” to learn about “aggressive and professional NTEU representation.”

Colleen Kelley, national president of the union, confirmed in a statement that the group had been contacted by some CFTC workers. The NTEU represents 150,000 employees at 31 federal agencies, Kelley said. Among them are the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

“NTEU is exploring the issue of representation at the CFTC and will provide further information when appropriate,” she said.

The meeting at the Black Rooster Pub, around the corner from the CFTC’s headquarters, drew about 30 people, according to one employee who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid any possible repercussions at the agency.

Steve Adamske, CFTC spokesman, declined to comment.

Expanded Duties

Created 40 years ago to police the futures market, which mainly consisted of agricultural commodities, the CFTC in 2010 was given responsibility for overseeing the $693 trillion swaps market by the Dodd-Frank Act. Its officials say the expanded duties exceed its $215 million budget. As a result, the CFTC has been forced to place employees on unpaid leave.

In January, the 700-person agency agency ran out of cash and had to arrange a deal with the Treasury Department just to keep its doors open, three people familiar with the matter said at the time. It also was unable to immediately pay workers a 1 percent raise that other U.S. employees received at the beginning of the year.

CFTC employees received the boost, retroactive to Jan. 1, in their most recent paychecks.

Gary Gensler, who became CFTC chairman in 2009, left the post at the start of this year. Commissioner Mark Wetjen has been acting chairman while the White House awaits Senate confirmation of Treasury Department official Timothy Massad, its nominee to replace Gensler.

Most Disgruntled

According to one report released last December, the agency’s workers are the most disgruntled they’ve been since 2005. The Partnership for Public Service, an organization that compiles survey data from federal employees, ranked the CFTC the sixth-worst place to work of 29 small agencies. CFTC employees gave the agency low marks for work-life balance, pay, training and quality of leadership.

By law, the CFTC is required to have “pay parity” with the other agencies that regulate banks and financial companies. That hasn’t been achieved in recent years.

An internal agency memo issued in March 2013 detailing the previous year’s pay and benefits showed that the CFTC had fallen behind some of its counterparts. Its average salary of $143,659 was 7 percent less than the SEC average of $154,295. Benefits, as a percentage of the agency’s payroll, also lagged behind all other financial regulators, the memo said.

If there turns out to be sufficient interest in unionizing at the CFTC, the NTEU would petition the for a union election.

In the e-mail, the CFTC workers were told the NTEU would “share how the union can drive positive change in your workplace, make sure your mission and your job are protected in today’s hostile environment and work toward full implementation of the Wall Street reform bill.”