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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jun 2, 2011, 11:51 am

White House Workers Given Right to Unionize. Why Not DOJ Employees as Well?

BY Mike Elk

WASHINGTON D.C.—While Republican governors across the United States have been rolling back the categories of public workers who can collectively bargain, the federal government has been quietly increasing the number of public employees who can collectively bargaining.

Last November, the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) accepted petitions from two unions to hold union elections for nearly 56,000 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers‚ setting the stage for the largest union election in nearly four decades. (TSA Director John Pistole also granted those workers the right to collectively bargain on a limited range of issues.)

Now it appears that nearly 400 workers at the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will be allowed to unionize. Previously, such workers had not been allowed to unionize because they work in close proximity with the White House and come in close contact with sensitive material. In May, The American Federation of Government of Employees (AFGE) filed for a union election at OMB with the Federal Labor Relations Authority. OMB has already agreed that a union election should be held at OMB and the FLRA is expected to approve AFGE’s request soon.

The move to allow workers at OMB, which drafts the president's proposed budget and reviews executive branch regulations, to unionize follows a general trend of the Obama administration to allow workers to open new categories of eligible workers to unionize. This is partly in response to the fact that workers at the federal level have been clamoring to unionize as public workers come under attack around the country. According to the AFGE's Peter Winch, 1,000 members a month have been joining AFGE over the last year in response to attacks on public workers. 

Yet one large group of several thousand federal workers is still barred from unionizing by a Presidential Executive Order: People employed by the Department of Justice. In 2002, President Bush issued an executive order excluding them from the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. The rationale Bush used to justify stripping workers of their right to collectively bargain was that many workers at the Department of Justice (which contains the U.S. Attorney's office) were privy to sensitive and sometimes classified information.

Many union officials thought Obama would rescind Bush’s executive order denying Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney's office workers from collectively bargaining. So far, he hasn't. “There is just no justifiable reason why these workers, many of whom are clerical workers, should be denied their right to collectively bargain,” Winch says.

For critics who claim that little has changed at the Department of Justice under  Obama, the refusal to act on returning collectively bargaining rights to public employees there is yet another troubling sign. In a Department afraid of leaks, the decision not to grant workers the protection of a union may be another sign that the Department of Justice is afraid of whistleblowers speaking up.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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