The Trump Administration’s War on Federal Workers

Sarah Lahm June 14, 2019

The Trump administration has AFGE in its sights. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Claim­ing 700,000 mem­bers in the Unit­ed States and over­seas, the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees (AFGE) stands as the nation’s largest fed­er­al and D.C. gov­ern­ment employ­ee labor union. The union rep­re­sents employ­ees who pro­vide care and sup­port for vet­er­ans, the elder­ly and dis­abled, and peo­ple in need of hous­ing through the Social Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion, the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs, and the Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment, along with oth­er fed­er­al agencies.

A state­ment on the AFGE web­site describes these employ­ees as the vital threads of the fab­ric of Amer­i­can life.” Now, the AFGE con­tends, its mem­bers are under attack, thanks to recent actions by the Trump administration.

The AFGE is cur­rent­ly in con­tract nego­ti­a­tions with the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs on behalf of 260,000 employ­ees who work for the agency. In the process of these nego­ti­a­tions, AFGE Dis­trict Office Man­ag­er Matt Muchows­ki says that VA man­age­ment is attempt­ing to undo labor rights that have been won by the union since its found­ing in 1932.

To bet­ter under­stand the nature of these affronts, Muchows­ki argues, it is impor­tant to look at three exec­u­tive orders signed by Pres­i­dent Trump on May 25, 2018. While the orders have since osten­si­bly been ruled in vio­la­tion of labor law by a U.S. Dis­trict Court in August 2018, Muchows­ki says that sec­tions of the orders which lim­it time spent dur­ing the work day on union activ­i­ties (known as offi­cial time”) as well as due process are being pushed into the con­tract by VA negotiators. 

This approach is mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for fed­er­al work­ers to do what they do,” by seek­ing to alter key ele­ments of the con­tracts nego­ti­at­ed between AFGE mem­bers — includ­ing Vet­er­ans Affairs work­ers — and man­age­ment, he says. Fur­ther, Muchows­ki notes, this strat­e­gy has already been employed dur­ing nego­ti­a­tions over the Social Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion con­tract ear­li­er this year, which result­ed in major con­ces­sions for work­ers. He says the Trump administration’s approach to the AFGE nego­ti­a­tions rep­re­sents an esca­la­tion of its anti-union tactics.”

The key ele­ments of the 2018 exec­u­tive orders fall under three cat­e­gories: employ­ees’ job pro­tec­tion and due process rights, offi­cial time and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing procedures.

The first order out­lines lim­its on the use of pro­gres­sive dis­ci­pline” approach­es for work­ers in fed­er­al agen­cies and instead calls for the allowance of more imme­di­ate dis­missals, among oth­er more strin­gent­ly dic­tat­ed rela­tions between man­age­ment and workers.

The sec­ond order calls for more reg­u­lat­ed and restrict­ed use of offi­cial time”: time employ­ees are allowed to spend on union duties while still on the clock. This is a con­cept that has been part of AFGE’s labor con­tracts since the Carter admin­is­tra­tion, Muchows­ki notes, when the pres­ence of unions in the work­place was seen as part of effec­tive governance.”

Under this mod­el, an employ­ee can con­duct union busi­ness while using gov­ern­ment-pro­vid­ed items such as office space, com­put­ers or phones. Trump’s exec­u­tive order, how­ev­er, calls for employ­ees’ offi­cial time to be great­ly reduced and also man­dates that they should no longer be giv­en free or reduced rate access to an office or a computer.

While the Trump admin­is­tra­tion holds that this revi­sion is nec­es­sary to make the gov­ern­ment effec­tive and effi­cient,” Vet­er­ans Affairs employ­ee Ger­maine Clano dis­agrees. Clarno is a social work­er at the Edward Hines, Jr., VA Hos­pi­tal in sub­ur­ban Chica­go, and she says the loss of offi­cial time would be devastating.

Clarno pro­vides full-time union rep­re­sen­ta­tion to doc­tors, social work­ers and oth­er pro­fes­sion­al employ­ees of the VA through the offi­cial time pro­vi­sion, whether they are dues-pay­ing union mem­bers or not. It’s work she describes as essen­tial. The cul­ture of the VA is still very retal­ia­to­ry,” Clarno says, not­ing that she acts as a resource for employ­ees who would like to bring alle­ga­tions of waste, fraud or abuse” to light.

Tak­ing away offi­cial time means tak­ing away employ­ees’ secu­ri­ty around being able to report what’s going on at the VA,” Clarno insists, so that we can make things bet­ter for our veterans.”

The third order issued by Trump in 2018 is designed to assist exec­u­tive depart­ments and agen­cies in devel­op­ing effi­cient, effec­tive, and cost-reduc­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments.” The order claims that col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments lim­it man­agers’ abil­i­ty to either hold low-per­form­ers account­able” or reward high per­form­ers,” and that they are often drawn out, at the expense of tax­pay­er money.

The order calls for an expe­dit­ed con­tract nego­ti­a­tion peri­od, with lin­ger­ing dis­putes to be set­tled by the polit­i­cal­ly-appoint­ed mem­bers of the Fed­er­al Ser­vice Impass­es Pan­el (FSIP). In the post-Janus era — which has brought new chal­lenges to pub­lic sec­tor unions — it’s notable that pan­el mem­ber David Osborne’s bio states that he has built a career around offer­ing free legal ser­vices to those hurt by pub­lic employ­ee union officials.”

While both the FSIP and attempts to gov­ern through exec­u­tive orders are not new, they are part of an increas­ing­ly fraught era for fed­er­al work­ers and the Trump administration’s fed­er­al man­age­ment team.

Just days before Trump issued his three exec­u­tive orders, news reports not­ed the ris­ing ten­sion between work­ers and fed­er­al man­agers, who had just unveiled an ambi­tious and aggres­sive plan to mod­ern­ize the civ­il ser­vice,” accord­ing to Nicole Ogrysko of the Fed­er­al News Net­work. This plan, union lead­ers alleged, was intend­ed to cut depart­ment bud­gets while turn­ing more fed­er­al employ­ees into poor­ly com­pen­sat­ed temp workers.

Trump’s exec­u­tive orders were con­test­ed in court by the AFGE and oth­er labor unions, and in August 2018, U.S. Dis­trict Court Judge Ketan­ji Brown Jack­son ruled in favor of the unions. At the time, a review of the case appeared in the online news out­let, Gov­ern­ment Exec­u­tive, where reporter Erich Wag­n­er stat­ed that Brown Jack­son found the exec­u­tive orders to be in vio­la­tion of the Civ­il Ser­vice Reform Act of 1978.

This Act upholds the val­ue of good-faith labor-man­age­ment nego­ti­a­tions and con­cludes that they are done in the pub­lic inter­est.” Nonethe­less, Muchows­ki says, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has per­sist­ed in seek­ing to nego­ti­ate labor con­tracts with fed­er­al employ­ees accord­ing to the 2018 exec­u­tive orders. As evi­dence, he cites the recent­ly set­tled con­tract between the Social Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion and the 45,000 AFGE mem­bers who work there.

Dur­ing the con­tract nego­ti­a­tion process, SSA man­age­ment and union nego­tia­tors could not agree on twelve claus­es, accord­ing to a report filed by Tom Temin of the Fed­er­al News Net­work. As a result, the con­tract was turned over to the FSIP, which has the pow­er to either rec­om­mend a way to agree,” or order spe­cif­ic, bind­ing actions” that both par­ties must abide by, Temin states.

While some gov­ern­ment pan­els are bipar­ti­san, the FSIP is not: All sev­en mem­bers were appoint­ed by Trump. Temin notes that, of the twelve dis­put­ed claus­es, the FSIP sided with man­age­ment on ten of them. Although AFGE mem­bers were able to keep cer­tain griev­ance rights, they did lose ground on some cen­tral mat­ters, includ­ing the imple­men­ta­tion of a sev­en-year con­tract (the union want­ed a two-year term) and the loss of both office space and hours set aside for offi­cial time.

David Cann, direc­tor of field ser­vices and edu­ca­tion for the AFGE, says he believes the FSIP’s actions are a vio­la­tion of Judge Brown Jackson’s rul­ing against cer­tain aspects of Trump’s exec­u­tive orders. Brown Jackson’s deci­sion, Cann notes, found that parts of the exec­u­tive orders vio­lat­ed col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights out­lined in the Civ­il Ser­vice Act of 1978, and that nei­ther the pres­i­dent nor his sub­or­di­nates could con­tin­ue nego­ti­a­tions under such terms.

Because the FSIP is an entire­ly polit­i­cal­ly appoint­ed body, Cann argues that its mem­bers are, in effect, Trump’s sub­or­di­nates and there­fore should not be allowed to set­tle dis­putes, using what he believes are the administration’s exec­u­tive orders as a guide.

In a state­ment post­ed to its web­site, the AFGE minced no words about the dan­ger­ous prece­dent such a deci­sion could set: A pan­el of Trump’s union-bust­ing appointees has imposed anti-work­er pro­vi­sions in a new labor-man­age­ment con­tract for the peo­ple who ensure elder­ly Amer­i­cans and those with dis­abil­i­ties can live with dig­ni­ty and finan­cial security.”

Clarno has been close­ly track­ing the con­tract set­tle­ment between AFGE and the Social Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion and says that, for her, the fear is that the Fed­er­al Ser­vice Impasse Pan­el will push the same thing” for VA work­ers in con­tract nego­ti­a­tions. Fed­er­al employ­ees can’t strike,” she states. Real­ly, what lever­age do we have? We have none. It’s very, very concerning.”

Sarah Lahm is a Min­neapo­lis-based writer and for­mer Eng­lish Instruc­tor. She is a 2015 Pro­gres­sive mag­a­zine Edu­ca­tion Fel­low and blogs about edu­ca­tion at bright​lights​mall​ci​ty​.com.
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