Hundreds of American Federation of Government Employee members from across the country at a July 2018 rally in Washington. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Columnist

It’s been almost one year since a federal judge stymied President Trump’s effort to undermine the power of federal unions through three executive orders. But that hasn’t stopped relentless attempts to reach the same goal through a different route.

What Trump hasn’t been able to do through sweeping edicts, his administration has been steadily seeking agency by agency.

The latest example is Monday’s one-sided implementation of a labor contract by the Environmental Protection Agency. This followed, the EPA said, a comment by a union official that “we decline to negotiate new ground rules.”

Arguing that “at no point” did the union refuse to bargain, David Cann, the American Federation of Government Employees director of field services and education, said the EPA’s contention that “the ground-rules dispute gives rise to … circumstances for imposing a term agreement is wrong.”

Like moves by several other agencies involving various federal unions, the EPA contract cuts “official time,” long a Republican target. It allows union officials to represent all bargaining-unit employees, not just union members, while being paid by the government during grievance procedures and discussions over certain issues such as safety and productivity. The contract also evicts union officials from agency-provided office space and cuts telework.

“As is the agency’s right,” it imposed a master collective-bargaining agreement “following the Union’s refusal to bargain,” said the EPA’s statement to the Federal Insider. “The ball is now in AFGE’s court.”

The EPA calls it a bargaining agreement, but it wasn’t bargained, and there was no agreement. The union has filed an unfair-labor-practice complaint against the agency with the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

“The Trump administration has shown an outrageous pattern of trampling on federal employees’ rights and ignoring the law to dismantle decades of prior agreements between our union and previous administrations,” said AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. “This attack on worker rights is especially egregious at the EPA, where engineers and scientists fight every day to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink.”

The AFGE also charged the National Park Service two weeks ago with an unfair labor practice, saying the agency, contrary to law and bargaining ground rules, won’t allow adequate official time for union negotiators. Federal law says employees representing unions “in the negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement … shall be authorized official time for such purposes.” The ground rules for Park Service-AFGE contract negotiations cite the law and say, “Members of the Union negotiating team will receive official time for the purpose of negotiating the agreement.”

The Park Service said it did “in fact grant official time to NPS employees to participate in bargaining. Furthermore, at AFGE’s request, the NPS adjusted employees’ schedules to change their days off to enable the employees to be on official time during bargaining sessions.”

The EPA and Park Service battles are just the latest in an escalating fight by the Trump administration against long-established labor-management norms. The biggest bombshell landed in May 2018 when the president issued three executive orders designed to severely undermine unions. The orders would sharply cut official time, rebuke collective-bargaining agreements and allow agencies to fire feds faster, while diluting grievance procedures. Responding to union challenges, U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in Washington largely blocked implementation of the orders in August, a ruling the administration is appealing.

Noting that about 57 percent of the federal government’s nonpostal workforce is covered by collective-bargaining agreements, the Office of Personnel Management defended the administration’s offensive against unions, saying “agencies should secure collective bargaining agreements which promote an effective and efficient means of accomplishing agency missions and supporting the objectives” of the President’s Management Agenda.

What the OPM considers actions to “effectively steward taxpayer dollars” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) describes as Trump’s “deliberate assault on federal unions, workers’ pay, benefits, and due process rights.” Several agencies, he added, “are ignoring the court order and violating federal labor law by purposefully steering union contract negotiations to the Federal Services Impasse Panel, a packed gallery of anti-worker individuals — all Trump appointees.” The panel, part of the Federal Labor Relations Authority, resolves federal labor-management negotiating breakdowns.

“It’s clear this is the administration’s labor strategy,” Cardin said, “which is a prime example of the administration’s contempt for the rule of law, collective bargaining, and basic fairness.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect timeline regarding a court challenge to President Trump’s three executive orders affecting federal labor unions. The column said it’s been “almost 26 months” since a federal judge blocked the orders. It’s been almost a year since the court action, and the story has been corrected.

Read more:

In victory for unions, judge overturns key parts of Trump executive orders

Trump’s orders show unwavering attack on federal unions, employees

VA, skirting court order, kills ‘official time’ for medical professionals

Personnel chief wants a yes with unions, but Trump administration actions say no