If an administration wanted to destroy the power of labor unions, it might first attack unions that are subject to executive orders. President Trump headed in that direction late last Friday, when he signed three executive orders that place new restrictions on federal employee labor unions.
The orders, which affect more than two million federal employees, limit employees’ use of “official time” (the amount of time a federal employee can use to work on union matters while on the clock) to 25 percent of the work day; revamp the collective bargaining process, and make it easier for managers to fire employees.
House Republicans want to cut back on “official time,” which they describe as “union time on the people’s dime” (and was actually the title Republicans used for last week’s House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations’ hearing on the topic). But federal union representatives use official time to address specific workplace problems, as decades-old legislation makes clear.
Contrary to what Republicans contend, that time is not used to recruit new members, hold union meetings, or conduct political activities—it’s used to resolve conflicts and grievances and improve the functioning and safety of the workplace, for union members and non-members alike.
“The federal government would be less effective if employees did not have a chance to express discontent or have representatives with paid time to discuss employee-employer relationships,” Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told members of Congress at the subcommittee hearing.
“Official time is not ‘union time,’” the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal employee union, representing about 700,000 federal employees, said in a written statement submitted to the committee. “It is representational time.”
But during his hearing testimony, Trey Kovacs, a policy analyst at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, referred to federal unions’ use of official time to represent both members and non-members as a “problem” that “can easily be solved by lifting the legal requirement for federal employee unions to represent non-members.” This suggestion (which Kovacs referred to as “worker’s choice”) is something like right-to-work on steroids.
Indeed, that’s what many of these changes look like: an attack on unions reminiscent of state-level, anti-union campaigns, like the one launched by Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker, who gutted public sector unions’ collective bargaining rights. When Walker sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, he also complained about official time and proposed to ban federal employee unions altogether.
While the Trump administration hasn’t gone that far yet, officials have moved to target how unions and their respective agencies interact at the bargaining table and during federal employee disciplinary processes. Contracts must be renegotiated to be “effective and efficient” and to reduce costs. Federal managers now have stronger tools to use to terminate employees who have been designated as low-performing. Under new policies, unions will also be required to pay for the spaces they use in federal agency offices.
Labor relations at the Department of Education had already taken a step backward earlier this year. In March, department officials implemented a new employee contract without bargaining with the union—and then required union officials to vacate union offices and return department equipment. AFGE submitted a complaint to the Federal Labor Relations Authority, stating that the department had “failed to negotiate and bargain in good faith.”
Supporters of the executive orders say changes aren’t harmful especially because federal employees are better protected and receive far more benefits than the average, non-federal worker. Indeed, firing a federal employee may be a lengthy and complex process because they have such strong rights.
But worker protections and benefits are a net good, especially in a climate where wage growth remains slow and just one in ten workers belong to a union. Unionized employees not only tend to earn more than non-union employees—but also, places with high union density are associated with higher wages for non-union members.
Moreover, with the burgeoning gig economy and the sharp increase in low-wage, no-benefit work, many people simply do not have health care coverage, sick leave, or the other benefits that workers once expected. The average worker deserves the protections that federal employees currently (and used to) enjoy, not the other way around.
Each of these executive orders could be overturned by a future administration, but not before they inflict catastrophic damage on the federal government’s organized labor force. “This is more than union busting,” AFGE President J. David Cox said in a statement, “it’s democracy busting.”
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