President Trump applauds during a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Columnist

President Trump is erratic, inconsistent and impulsive on issues large and small, but he is unwavering in his attack on federal unions and his efforts to make life tougher for federal employees.

On Friday, he used his ultimate weapon, his power to issue executive orders, with three directives — two targeting labor organizations and another on firing feds faster. The orders were just the latest  steps designed to weaken unions, federal employee compensation and civil service protections.

Along with other moves, including imposing a contract on a union local against its will, Trump’s orders potentially could make him one of the more consequential of recent presidents on federal workforce issues.

With that alarming thought in mind, here’s what the executive orders do:

  • Sharply cut “official time,” which Trump wants to redefine as “taxpayer-funded union time.” Official time allows union officials to represent all the members of a bargaining unit, whether they are union members or not, in grievances and matters of broad interest to the workforce.
  • Rebuke collective bargaining agreements, saying union contracts “often make it harder for agencies to reward high performers, hold low-performers accountable, or flexibly respond to operational needs.” A labor relations group of administration officials will develop “government-wide approaches to bargaining issues,” including a reduction in official time. Agency officials are instructed to prepare contract renegotiation recommendations that are “not subject to disclosure” to union representatives.
  • Encourage managers to hasten dismissals of employees, instead of suspending them, while discouraging “progressive discipline,” which allows for increasingly severe corrective measures. Grievance procedures are diluted.

Federal unions are united in their denunciation of Trump’s executive orders, and they are not alone. Paul C. Light, a New York University federal government specialist, said the dictates “reinforce the myth of the overpaid, underperforming bureaucrats that has produced so many attacks over the decades.”  He called them “gratuitous gestures to the civil service haters who are currently stalking Congress.”

A prime example of Trump’s attack on federal unions is his order on official time. Not satisfied with the term “official time,” his executive order says “ ‘Taxpayer-funded union time’ shall mean official time.” Whatever the name, it has long been a target of Republicans in agreement with Trump, who said it allows union representatives to “perform other non-agency business while being paid by American taxpayers.”

But the business the union leaders do with the time is directly related to their agencies. That business includes discussions with management over such things as workplace safety and productivity, in addition to filing grievances for any member of a bargaining unit, not just dues payers. Federal unions are legally obligated to represent all in a bargaining unit, even those who don’t belong to the labor organization.

It is misleading to call official time “paid time to do union business,” as a Washington Post article did. Title 5 of the U.S. Code specifically excludes the “internal business of a labor organization (including the solicitation of membership, elections of labor organization officials, and collection of dues),” from official time, which is negotiated between unions and agency management.

The orders are in keeping with other actions to belittle federal unions and the pocketbooks of all federal employees. Trump wants to freeze federal pay next year and cut federal retirement benefits by $143.5 billion over 10 years. In March, his Education Department unilaterally imposed a contract on union members who had rejected it. The American Federation of Government Employees appealed that action to the Federal Labor Relations Authority. But the FLRA, which considers appeals on labor-management issues, many of them raised by unions, has diminished its own effectiveness by closing two of its seven offices. In September, Trump killed labor-management forums, where union and agency leaders discussed such topics as workplace cybersecurity.

Trump foreshadowed his anti-union executive orders in the administration’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal released in February by implicitly blaming unions for “employer-employee relations activities [that] currently consume considerable management time and taxpayer resources, and may negatively impact efficiency, effectiveness, cost of operations, and employee accountability and performance.” A budget document said, disapprovingly, that union “contracts can have a significant impact on agency performance, workplace productivity, and employee satisfaction.”

Trump’s order on “Streamlining Removal Procedures” is in line with many conservative efforts to cull the federal workforce. The order said “implementation of America’s civil service laws has fallen far short” of holding employees accountable for poor performance or conduct. “The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey has consistently found that less than one-third of Federal employees believe that the Government deals with poor performers effectively. Failure to address unacceptable performance and misconduct undermines morale, burdens good performers with subpar colleagues, and inhibits the ability of executive agencies … to accomplish their missions.”

Trump wants to speed dismissals and exclude “any dispute concerning decisions to remove any employee from Federal service for misconduct or unacceptable performance” from grievance procedures.

Praising the orders was Iain Murray, a senior fellow at the small-government Competitive Enterprise Institute. He claims that “it has been a long-standing outrage that it is almost impossible to fire a federal civil servant who isn’t up to the job.”

Organizations representing federal supervisors and managers are split on Trump’s attempts to accelerate terminations.

Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, said the executive orders represent “improvements to the performance accountability system,” though he is not sure what the phrase “supervisors and deciding officials should not be required to use progressive discipline” will mean in practice.

But the Federal Managers Association (FMA) is apprehensive, even as it supports civil service reform.

“We are very concerned about a government by fiat, making broad, sweeping changes without hearings, legislative review, buy-in from stakeholders and the front-line managers charged with implementing these changes,” FMA President Renee Johnson said. “These executive orders seem to run roughshod over a responsible, deliberate review of the current system, with the possibility of causing real harm to America’s civil service, and therefore, to our country.”

Read more:

[Trump thanks federal employees with $143.5 billion in retirement cuts]

[Trump administration escalates attack on federal unions with one-sided ‘agreement’ at Education]

[Is Trump joking about ‘strengthening the federal workforce’?]

[Trump plan to eliminate programs leaves questions; budget also hits federal unions]