President Trump’s aggressive efforts to upend the long-standing federal labor-management landscape by undermining government unions increasingly are the target of bipartisan rebukes.
His workplace policies, including restrictive executive orders and proposed retirement cuts, are being hit politically and legally, from Republicans and Democrats and by multiple union lawsuits.
The latest salvo in the broad-based rejection of Trump’s performance as boss in chief is a letter from two dozen House Democratic leaders asking him to rescind three executive orders that appear designed “to completely eradicate unions from the federal workplace.”
His May 25 orders were a significant escalation of the administration’s hostility toward federal labor organizations. One directive severely cuts “official time,” which allows union officials to conduct activities for an entire bargaining unit, not just union members. Another blames union contracts for making “it harder for agencies to reward high performers, hold low-performers accountable, or flexibly respond to operational needs.” A third order would allow federal agencies to fire workers faster.
The Democrats emphasized the danger the orders pose for federal whistleblowers, courageous individuals who often are made far more welcome by both parties on Capitol Hill than they are by their agencies.
Led by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the Democratic lawmakers said in their letter to Trump that the orders “are the most direct and systematic attack on whistleblower protections in a generation. They strip federal employees of procedures that were put in place to protect them against retaliation by their superiors — who are often political appointees — and they deny whistleblowers assistance from their union representatives when they are punished for speaking the truth. Your Executive Orders also degrade existing protections against undue partisanship in the federal workforce, allowing political appointees to terminate employees arbitrarily and without the checks assured through meaningful collective bargaining.”
The focus on whistleblowers is strategic. While unions have far more support among Democrats than Republicans, whistleblowers win bipartisan praise for risking their careers when they report waste, fraud and abuse in government agencies.
Twenty-one House Republicans, with significant federal employee constituencies, were more restrained in their criticism of their party’s leader, but they too objected to Trump’s actions.
“The recent Executive Orders embark upon a path that will undo many of the long-standing principles protected by law, which establish checks and balances not only in the federal workplace, but for the American public,” wrote the Republicans, led by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) and including Virginians Barbara Comstock, who faces a tough reelection battle, and Rob Wittman.
The executive orders also are taking increasing fire on the legal front. A coalition of 13 unions filed suit against the directives this week, joining separate, earlier lawsuits from the two largest federal labor organizations, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union.
Trump exceeded his authority, said the coalition, which asked the U.S. District Court in Washington to block enforcement of the edicts.
The orders “would wreck the system of collective bargaining in the federal sector, eliminate meaningful due process for federal employees that is essential to American democracy, and make it all but impossible for federal employee unions to offer federal workers the representation that unions in the federal sector are required by law to provide,” charged the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE).
The directives “make it all but impossible for federal employee unions to offer federal workers the representation we are required by law to provide,” added NFFE President Randy Erwin.
While the executive orders have been the focus of much attention this week, more than two dozen Senate Democrats have not forgotten Trump’s plan to cut federal retirement benefits by $143.5 billion over 10 years. That plan also has drawn Republican criticism.
In a letter to the Office of Personnel Management, the senators cited Trump’s call for “increased Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) contributions from employees, eliminating the FERS supplement for employees who retire beginning in 2018, basing retirement calculations on the average of the highest 5 years of salary instead of the current 3, and reducing or eliminating cost-of-living adjustments.” They said they “fear these cuts are motivated by an ongoing effort to balance the budget on the backs of federal workers rather than an effort to provide a comprehensive approach to modernizing federal employee compensation.”
The cuts, along with a Trump-proposed pay freeze in 2019, “will be devastating to retention and recruitment,” wrote the senators, led by Mark R. Warner of Virginia.
Officials at the White House, the Office of Management and Budget and the OPM did not respond to requests for comment.
The executive orders are part of a continuing presidential onslaught demonstrating Trump’s disdain for federal unions.
The Education Department imposed a contract in March on employees who had earlier rejected it. AFGE is appealing that action to the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA), but it is a weakened body under Trump. The FLRA resolves unfair labor practice complaints that are mostly filed by unions. The decision to close two of its seven field offices and its long vacant general counsel’s office place labor organizations at a disadvantage.
In a September executive order, Trump revoked the labor-management forums created by President Barack Obama. The forums facilitated communication on a variety of issues often affecting employees generally, not just union members.
The Trump administration implicitly blamed 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” in a budget proposal released in February.
One thing about Trump — he makes no effort to disguise his anti-union bias. He repeatedly puts it in writing.