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The top U.S. derivatives regulator is used to battling Wall Street. Now it’s gearing up for a potential fight with its own employees.

In February, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) contracted to spend as much as US$420,000 on outside labor lawyers after its workers joined a union, public documents show. The CFTC retained the attorneys in case labor negotiations break down and the agency becomes embroiled in a legal dispute, said a person briefed on management’s thinking who requested anonymity.

Tensions within the CFTC reached a flashpoint in December when employees grilled Chairman Timothy Massad about their compensation and benefits at an agency-wide meeting. The unrest comes at a pivotal time for the CFTC, which was transformed by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act from a regulator of mainly agriculture futures to a front-line cop of the $700 trillion swaps market.

Appointed and career employees at the agency say the additional responsibilities have overburdened the workforce, especially as the regulator’s budget—now at $250 million—hasn’t risen commensurately. Money has been so tight at the regulator in recent years that it was forced to request an emergency loan from the Treasury, furlough workers, and delay pay increases.

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