AFGE members cheer as they and congressional leadership hold a rally for wage increases Feb. 9 in Washington, D.C. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Federal labor leaders might want to don their hard hats.

It’s a risky time for federal unions. Republicans in Congress are pushing legislation that could make the work of labor organizers much more difficult or in one case, make an agency union go poof, simply disappear.

The latest move came Tuesday, when a House committee approved an “official time” bill targeting federal unions.

But that could be the least of their worries. So before we get into that bill, let’s look at a couple of others that could break federal labor organizations.

One bill offered by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, is called the Federal Employee Rights Act. Despite the name, it would assault unions by prohibiting paycheck deduction of union dues, as is common in the private sector. It also would require a majority of all federal workers in a bargaining unit to vote for union representation. That would contrast with the usual practice, including congressional elections, where victory is determined by the majority of those voting. Requiring the majority of everyone eligible for victory is a much higher and more difficult bar to cross.

“Provisions of this bill … are intended to end labor unions in the federal sector,” said Gregory J. Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

Another bill would explicitly end unions at the Internal Revenue Service. Sen. Tim Scott’s (R-S.C.) EPIC Act, which stands for the End the Partisan IRS Culture,” would prohibit union organizing and collective bargaining in the tax agency. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) has a similar bill, but with a more direct title: “Preventing Unionization of Revenue Service Employees Act.”

When Scott introduced his bill in November, he said, “We should put the 200-plus employees currently doing union work (at the IRS) back to serving the American taxpayers, not their union bosses and the politicians they support.” His office said the 200 employees refers to the number of IRS staffers on official time.

But Scott’s statement reflects a “fundamental misunderstanding of what official time is,” as Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) said about Republicans during Tuesday’s debate in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

They have long taken aim at official time, which allows agency employees, who also are union officials, to conduct certain, limited types of union related business while being paid by the government. The legislation approved by the committee would require agencies to provide detailed information about the use of official time. By itself, it is not a direct hit on the practice.

Instead, it could arm Republicans with the ammunition they need in their broader effort against unions. The detailed information required by the bill includes a demand for  “a description of any room or space designated at the agency… where official time activities will be conducted, including  the square footage.”

Casting it as an accountability measure, Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) said the legislation is “absolutely necessary” to determine how official time “contributes to the productivity and effectiveness of the federal government.”

Republicans think it detracts from both.

Federal unions are required by law to represent everyone in a bargaining unit, even those who do not pay union dues. Official time is the tradeoff for that requirement. Furthermore, Lynch said management has the exclusive right to grant official time and it is used for discussions over such things as workplace efficiency, safety and training.

“Official time is the bedrock of productive labor-management partnerships that result in untold savings for the federal government,” said National Federation of Federal Employees President William R. Dougan. “Whether the savings arise from administrative adjudications as a way to avoid costly attorney fees or from a local military installation collaboratively reforming its work systems to save taxpayers millions, official time is at the heart of effective government operations. Official time is efficient time.”

One more thing. “Federal employees are strictly prohibited by law,” he added, “from using official time for internal union business.”

Note to readers regarding the Federal Diary:

There were some eventful happenings in 1932.

Radio City Music Hall opened. The infamous federal “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” began.  Little Richard and Elizabeth Taylor were born.

So was the Federal Diary.

Now, after 84 years, Diary is undergoing a transformation to keep up with the digital age. The Washington Post will continue covering federal workplace and management issues as the Diary has done, but with an expanded scope and publication schedule and a different name. Issues covered by the column will soon be part an enhanced Federal Insider, our email newsletter. The Insider will increase its coverage of government accountability issues and government’s interaction with taxpayers, as it continues to cover the federal workplace. Instead of writing the Diary three days a week, I will write a lead column for the Insider five days a week. Stay tuned and let us know how you like these changes, which will take effect soon.

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