Federal employees are in the midst of a legislative season in which they are struggling with friend and foe alike, on issues ranging from pay to an attack on unions in their sector where membership is the strongest.
Labor organizations have already launched a preemptive strike against the 1.6 percent pay raise President Obama will include in the fiscal year 2017 budget proposal being released Tuesday. The proposed raise, though better than the 1.3 percent average hike this year, is far below what labor leaders and their congressional allies seek.
While they differ with friend Obama on this, their dispute with him is neither as deep nor as visceral as their reaction to Republican proposals, such as one from Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the influential chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Other GOP measures would double the employee probationary period to two years and cut workplace rights for senior executives. Legislation that Price introduced Thursday would obstruct federal unions and has been denounced as an attempt to destroy them.
Price’s Federal Employee Rights Act “has a very misleading title and is being introduced under the false premise that federal employees are forced to pay union dues,” said American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr.
According to Price’s press release, the bill would “offer protection from forced union dues.” That’s deceptive because federal employees are not required to join unions or pay dues. Price would prohibit federal agencies and the District government from deducting dues from wages, as many private employers do. Eliminating pay check deduction would be a serious blow to the labor organizations.
Price says he wants to protect how federal employees’ “hard-earned dollars are used by union leadership,” adding, “The Federal Employee Rights Act would offer basic paycheck, workplace, and ballot protections, putting the interest of federal employees first.”
His bill would require a majority of all federal employees – instead of a voting majority – in a proposed bargaining unit to vote in favor of union representation. His legislation is unlikely to get much Democratic support, but with Republican majorities in both chambers, he might not need it.
National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon called the bill “a cynical attempt to undermine and ultimately destroy federal unions and prevent federal employees who voluntarily joined a union from having effective representation… Preventing union dues from being deducted would save zero money and has only one purpose – to reduce union membership.”
Unlike declining union membership nationally, public sector unions are relatively strong.
In 2015, the public-sector union membership rate was 35.2 percent, more than five times the 6.7 private-sector rate, according to a new Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
As overall union membership has been dropping, the largest federal union, the American Federation of Government Employees, has demonstrated impressive growth, boasting a 42 percent increase from 213,391 dues-paying members in 2006 to 302,514 today. AFGE’s numbers got a big boost when it won the right to organize 45,000 Transportation Security Administration employees in 2011.
The 17,350 votes cast for both unions in that contest against NTEU was fewer than half the number of employees. But the system of choosing a winner by a majority of the number of votes cast is standard operating procedure in American elections. It’s the way we choose presidents and members of Congress, including Price.
“It is the height of irony for a member of Congress to change the standard for union recognition from 50 percent of ‘those who cast ballots’ to 50 percent of all eligible voters in a bargaining unit,” said Reardon. “Congressional elections are often decided with anemic numbers of eligible voters participating.… Clearly, this is just another attempt to limit union representation.”
It’s also an attempt to usurp the District’s authority, because it would apply to city employees. That led to this retort from D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D): “I would have thought that a self-proclaimed Tea Party Republican would be the first to respect the choices of citizens, and certainly an independent local jurisdiction. Treating the District of Columbia like a federal agency is an insult to the people I represent.”
Meanwhile, she and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) introduced bipartisan legislation last week that federal employees can embrace. Their bill would protect the right of feds in certain “noncritical sensitive” positions to appeal terminations to the Merit Systems Protection Board. They were stripped of that right in a federal appellate court decision the Supreme Court declined to consider. With the court’s decision standing, Norton said about 200,000 Defense Department employees have fewer due-process rights than most other federal employees and that potentially could extend government-wide.
The court’s decision “means that federal employees who are demoted or suspended from noncritical service positions have no right to independent review of the agency decision,” Wittman said. “Without that additional level of accountability, agencies are free to punish would-be whistleblowers and take retaliatory action against employees who are simply trying to do their jobs.”