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.”
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Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English Instructor. She writes the Midwest Dispatch column for the Progressive magazine, and her work has appeared in other local and national outlets.