A long-serving federal union leader calls it a career

After 33 years of working for the National Treasury Employees Union, its president, Tony Reardon, is calling it a career. He'll retire in August, when his term ...

After 33 years of working for the National Treasury Employees Union, its president, Tony Reardon, is calling it a career. He’ll retire in August, when his term as president concludes. Before that, he joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin in studio.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin Let’s begin at the top here. And it let’s talk about IRS itself, I think of that as the central agency for NTEU, even though you’re actually at 34 different agencies and components. But how do you think things have actually changed for the average IRS member in that third of a century?

Tony Reardon Well, I think, certainly things have gotten much more difficult for IRS employees. And I would attribute that to a number of things, Tom. I think, first of all, you had all the funding issues that the IRS had really dating back to 2010, if not even a little bit earlier than that. And so as a result, the IRS lost just tens of thousands of employees. And that certainly created a very tough environment for employees. But when you think back to about 2013, as I recall, the IRS had to curtail a lot of training that they did for employees. And so my concern for employees has been that, since the IRS doesn’t have the funding, doesn’t have the staffing, it doesn’t have the training for folks that it really has created an environment where employees are not set up for success the way that they should be. Now, what I’m hopeful of, certainly, given the $80 billion that the Inflation Reduction Act is bringing to the IRS, and now with a new commissioner with Danny Werfel, I am hopeful that we’re going to really start to see a change in all that.

Tom Temin It seems like the IRS is always the crucible for differences of politics that really are not of the agency’s doing. Because Republicans and Democrats have longstanding differences over tax policy, over tax enforcement, and they use the IRS as kind of the proving ground for those arguments, whereas the IRS is simply a functionary agency that carries out whatever the policy and the statutes are that it’s presented with.

Tony Reardon Well, absolutely. I think, the sort of average American doesn’t always know that, Look, it’s Congress that that puts all the tax laws in place. And the IRS is simply responsible for administering those tax policies, tax laws. And one of the things that I tell people all the time, and I have for many years, I think most Americans don’t think about this as well. The IRS literally brings in 95 to 96% of our government’s revenue. So they happen to be a very important piece of our nation’s economy. And I think when people start to hear some of the real story behind what the IRS delivers and what they’re responsible for and how they got to be responsible for it, I think that really kind of changes often the viewpoint.

Tom Temin And getting back to the issue of the reduction in staff, that kind of took a step function those years ago. Also 30 some years ago, most of the processing, all of the processing for tax forms, tax returns was paper. Remember those desks that were surrounded by an array of trays for paper sorting, all this manual paperwork. That largely has gone away, I think starting it around the late nineties with the advent of online payment, that was during the Clinton administration. So does it need the numbers that have had traditionally given all of the automation that’s come in the technology?

Tony Reardon Well, certainly the IRS is in desperate need of more employees, there is no question about that. And there are so many reasons why.  Number one, if you just think in terms of in call centers,   where they are required to answer phone calls from Americans. The level of service that the IRS had in responding to calls up until recent times was in the low teens and even below that. Well, the American people, the American taxpayer have a much higher expectation of getting their phone calls answered. So there are certainly need of customer service contact reps to be able to respond to phone calls. But also, just in terms of folks who are responsible for helping the average American, that needs to go into a tax center to get questions answered. Many of those offices were closed, because they didn’t have the staffing. And it’s really our most vulnerable Americans that end up being negatively impacted, because not all of them have computers. They don’t all understand how to work the various tax programs that are out there. They need to go in and simply be able to talk to somebody. IT, there is certainly a need for IT folks. I think we all know or most people know, that the IRS is using computer systems that are older than I am. And I’m old. So there has to be some work done in staffing across the agency, technology across the agency, training across the agency and so much more.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Tony Reardon. He is the president of the National Treasury Employees Union, and he’s going to retire in August. We have him in the studio. And that whole modernizing question, that has been kind of a morale killer and it’s really chewed up through a lot of personnel. Both at the executive level and at the regular employee level, because they’ve made so many runs since, I guess, around 92 is when the first modernization was kind of launched for IRS, and the systems were getting old then. And now we’re 30 years past that, more than 30 years. And yet, the same master file system is still running in the same original code. From your standpoint, why has it been such an intractable thing that they’ve spent billions and restarted that project probably a half a dozen times?

Tony Reardon I certainly don’t have an inside track on exactly what’s happened in IRS leadership or management that has resulted in this. What I can tell you is that front line employees are the ones who have ultimately really paid the price, and I might add, the American taxpayer. So one of the things that I’m really hopeful of, and I’ve had many conversations with current Commissioner Danny Werfel. He is a guy that I think understands running a very large operation. And so I’m hopeful that he’s going to be able to garner all of the resources necessary, to be able to start to turn that. And I think, he has a very strong understanding about what needs to happen in the IT arena to start to turn that around, because ultimately, the idea has to be that employees have the tools and the resources that they need to do the job. Because, one of the things that I can tell you as the national president of NTEU, is when I talk to IRS employees, and I have for over 30 years. The number one thing that they want to do, they want to effectively serve the American taxpayer to a person. And so I think it’s really important that the IRS provide the tools and the training and resources that employees need so they can do that.

Tom Temin I guess one thing that is working in their favor, the average employee’s favor, is that conditions and attitudes toward the IRS are very different than they were in the era before that reorganization under Charles Rosati. And this followed, and I hate to say it, but the jack booted thug perception era. So in that sense, there has been progress.

Tony Reardon Well, yeah, I think there has been. But the other thing that we have to keep in mind, and this is for me. I guess what I would describe, as a really sort of sad part of our history around the IRS. We’ve all heard whether it’s on the floor of Congress, in the media, but some folks are talking about, for example, the 87,000 armed agents that are going to come and get you. And it’s all lies. That is in no way, shape or form what is happening. Just in terms of the 87,000, 52 to 56,000 of those are people who are going to be replacing folks who are retiring or leaving the agency. And one of the things that I think is important for the average American taxpayer to know, at the IRS there is something on the order of 2,000 to 2,500 folks who carry a weapon and they’re not even a part of the regular IRS. They’re agents and their law enforcement types. And so this whole notion of 87,000 armed agents is a fabrication that is, I think, really meant to move forward some kind of a political agenda, and it’s just not accurate.

Tom Temin My guest is Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. We spent a lot of time talking about IRS, but NTEU is much more than IRS these days. 34, I believe. Tell us how it got to be so spread out, even though it still has Treasury in the name.

Tony Reardon That started, and you know Bob Tobias well, who is the national president of NTEU, two presidents ago. And then, of course, Colleen Kelley, who preceded me, is as national president.

Tom Temin One of my favorites.

Tony Reardon Yeah, they’re both two of my favorite human.

Tom Temin As is Bob, I should say. Yes, he’s a regular here.

Tony Reardon I remain very close to both of them. But the fact is, I think what really transpired was, starting really with Bob, it probably started with Vince Connery, though I didn’t personally know Vince, who was our first full-time NTEU president. And then Bob came in. NTEU, I think, is really well-known as being a very thoughtful, professional, hard charging union. And as a result, other agencies, employees and other agencies said, hey, wait a minute, what you guys are doing for the IRS, we look at the contract, we see how strong the IRS collective bargaining agreement is. We want that. And so it just started to build and it’s just continued to build over time. Most recently, we’ve added three chapters with the Bureau of Land Management. And so we’re always looking at growing as long as the agencies and the jobs, the people that we would be representing, are a good fit with NTEU.

Tom Temin Now in the public sector, in the federal level, anyhow, unions are proscribed by law from bargaining over pay and benefit, because people are in the system that they’re in. So what are the elements, in your opinion, that make a good collective bargaining agreement for the federal sector?

Tony Reardon Yeah, I think there are a lot of different pieces of it. I think, in terms of all of the work that people have to do, NTEU through the collective bargaining agreement and unions in the federal sector in the collective bargaining agreement, process have the ability to touch on how work is done, what work is done. It it deals with every single element of an employee’s work life, in terms of work flexibilities, telework. And telework is one that I am particularly, pay particular attention to now given the the pandemic, and really the change in what’s happened in the workplace, people are looking for for telework. So the collective bargaining agreement has, obviously, so many different elements, but it’s all those things that I think are really important.

Tom Temin And a lot of people say this is one of these popular tropes that you can’t fire a federal employee. It’s impossible, they have jobs for life no matter how they perform. And does it look that way from your standpoint?

Tony Reardon No, it doesn’t look that way at all. And I think that’s just another inaccuracy that’s put out there as kind of an attack on federal sector unions or unions in general. But certainly, as you’ve described it, federal sector unions. Look, the reality is that nobody wants employees who are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing. The problem is, and what we’ve always maintained. It’s important, let me say it this way, it’s important for federal managers to make sure that they are dealing in an honest, upfront way with employees, making sure that they’re trained, making sure that they are communicating with them. If somebody is truly just not doing the job, there are ways to take action against them. Federal agencies have a way to do it. Certainly, NTEU and unions have their role to play in the process. And if everybody does their job, the right thing typically will happen.

Tom Temin I wanted to ask you about a phenomenon of the Trump years, which I never really directly asked a union, and that is the unions lost their official time and in many cases they lost their physical offices that they had in the large agencies, like IRS and some of the other unions in their agencies. What was that like? And was the real effect there?

Tony Reardon Well, let me just say that at NTEU, we did not experience a lot of that, because what happened was, and you’re referring to the May 2008 executive orders that the Trump administration put forward. But those executive orders did not impact where unions had contracts, collective bargaining agreements already in place. So we did not experience that, for example, in places like the IRS or CBP, which are our two largest agencies where we represent employees. We did, however, experience that in Health and Human Services. And so what was it like? It was, I would say, a morale buster for employees, because the message was that you, federal employee, HHS employee, you don’t matter. We don’t care if you have a say in your work life. You’re the ones on the front lines doing the work. You understand who it is, the work that you’re doing and what you’re doing for the American people. But we don’t really care about what you have to say and don’t want your input. And that’s the way that it played out. And so it was this whole issue of trust, I think, was really violated between agency leadership and frontline employees. And frontline employees concluded, you don’t care about me. And when you have that in the mix, it’s a major, major problem.

Tom Temin And are things, would you say, demonstrably better now?

Tony Reardon Yes, without question. In fact, we are very close at HHS to finalizing a new contract. And so,   one of the things that I would do or I would say is that, when you look at the Biden administration, they have really done, I think, a great deal in terms of looking at the labor management relationship and understanding the importance of it and trying to position their agencies to be a better partner, if you will, with unions.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. He’ll be retiring in August. And in the time we have left, let’s talk about you. Because your dad was associated with NTEU, and tell us more about your own history.

Tony Reardon Yeah, I would love to. So, I actually was just telling this story to a group of NTEU leaders yesterday. Before I came to NTEU, yes, My dad spent about eight years at NTEU. He was, in fact, hired by Bob Tobias, one of my predecessors. And then after my dad left, then I was hired in 1990 by Bob Tobias. And I remember thinking before I ever came to NTEU, and Bob had what he called an executive committee at that time, senior managers. And I remember thinking, wow, if I were to ever be in a position like this, and especially at NTEU, which was an organization that I truly loved, because I understood what it did for federal employees. And I saw the love my dad had for NTEU and the respect he had for the union. And so I thought, Wow, if I could ever be on the executive committee at NTEU, I will have arrived. And then, lo and behold, some day I  become the national president. So it has been, really, the honor of my life to be the president of NTEU.

Tom Temin And what occupies the president’s time day to day?

Tony Reardon Oh, it’s all kinds of things. It’s doing media. I would say that just generally speaking, the national president is the chief spokesperson of NTEU. So that certainly involves the media. It involves talking to our chapter leaders, hearing the stories of federal employees. Because the truth be told, in the NTEU story, it’s the members. It’s the frontline employees and our chapter leaders who are the heroes. And so I spend a lot of my time talking to them, because hearing their stories is how I frame my discussions, whether it be with the media, with Congress, with agency heads, with the administration. So those are all important elements, I believe.

Tom Temin And how our relations with the other federal unions? Typically in the industrial sector, there is one union that kind of covers a particular function. Do you operate like the five families and you’ve got a division of territory, or how does that work?

Tony Reardon No we don’t. And but what I will say about the relationship is, I think that the major unions, federal sector unions, I think work pretty well together and certainly have a great deal of respect for one another.

Tom Temin Your style is a lot different.

Tony Reardon Yeah, I would say that’s probably true. And we don’t always agree on everything, certainly. But we try to pay attention, and I’ve had very recent conversations, for example, with President Everett Kelly at [American Federation of Government Employees  (AFGE)], where we have talked about ways that we can work together. Because we all understand that their strength in numbers. And so as a result, we really do try to find ways that we can complement one another, work with one another on various issues, whether it be in the courtroom or at the bargaining table or wherever it is that we can kind of help each other.

Tom Temin And earlier, you said you’re old, but you seem pretty energetic to me. So post-retirement, will you really retire and fish? Or will you keep a hand in this fascinating market?

Tony Reardon I’m still kind of figuring that part of it out. Tom, I’m certainly going to be doing things. I’m not I’m not planning on sitting on the couch and watching TV, for sure. I will say that there are some things in, I’m going to be moving to North Carolina.

Tom Temin The Great Migration.

Tony Reardon Yeah. My wife and I we’ve already bought a house down there, so we’re going to go down there. And so I’m going to do a little bit of work with the Democratic Party, or at least that’s my plan. But I also want to look at ways that I can give back, whether it’s working in high schools and mentoring folks. I mean, there’s young people. So there’s a lot that I’m going to be looking at doing. And I might get my hands into some other things. I’m still kind of looking into that.


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