This week marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s executive order allowing federal employees the right to collective bargaining.

The first line of Executive Order 10988 establishes the basic premise: “Whereas participation of employees in the formulation and implementation of personnel policies affecting them contributes to effective conduct of public business. . . .

That notion has come under attack recently. Nonetheless, federal unions labor on, seeking, in the words of the order, to provide workers “an opportunity for greater participation in the formulation and implementation of policies and procedures affecting the conditions of their employment.”

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said Kennedy’s action was “a major step forward and helped to create the most highly respected civil service in the world.”

William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said that “collective bargaining has made inestimable gains in the quality of work life for millions of federal workers over the past half-century. Top-down decisions on safety and health matters, work schedules, reorganizations and many other workplace issues have been replaced with a collaborative process where workers have a definitive voice in how they accomplish their mission.”

What Kennedy might not have realized when he signed the document Jan. 17, 1962, was the impact his action would have on union membership. The rate of union membership in the federal government is several times that of the private sector, which in 2010 stood at just 6.9 percent of that workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At the federal level, about 63 percent of federal workers are unionized, estimates Robert Tobias, a former president of the National Treasury Employees Union and now director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University. Although BLS does not confirm Tobias’s estimate, it’s clear unions have a strong presence in the federal government.

A major reason is that the order told agency officials not to mess with employees who want to join or organize a union.

“Employees of the Federal Government shall have, and shall be protected in the exercise of, the right, freely and without fear of penalty or reprisal, to form, join and assist any employee organization or to refrain from any such activity,” Section 1(a) said. It further instructed agency heads to ensure “that no interference, restraint, coercion or discrimination is practiced within such agency to encourage or discourage membership in any employee organization.”

“It’s huge,” Tobias said of the order’s impact on federal organizing. Government agencies are not allowed to campaign against unions, as businesses can. Agency officials are prohibited from firing or taking action against labor activists (which is not to say it never happens).

But the executive order does not stop Congress from taking aim at federal unions. An American Federation of Government Employees statement put it this way: “At a time when government workers are currently under partisan attack, recognizing the significance of Executive Order 10988 is especially important to remind everyone of the long journey government workers have taken, and to re-energize workers for the battles ahead.”

The first shots in those battles have been fired.

Almost as soon as the Obama administration granted transportation security officers collective bargaining rights last year, Republicans introduced legislation to take them away.

“Collective bargaining advocated by the Obama Administration could restrict their ability to accomplish their job,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said in a February statement. “Not only would this change to allow bargaining restrict flexibility, the litigation it creates will lead to significant cost increases for taxpayers.”

His statement offered no proof that bargaining would restrict flexibility or increase costs.

In June, a House subcommittee considered legislation sponsored by Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) that would no longer allow union officials to do union business on government time. “Official time” is essentially the trade-off unions get for being required to represent everyone in a bargaining unit, even if they are not dues-paying members. Kennedy’s executive order says labor organizations “shall be responsible for representing the interests of all such employees without discrimination and without regard to employee organization membership.”

Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), chairman of the House federal workforce subcommittee, said he thinks unions have too much power.

“As the payrolls grow, so too does the electoral power of government unions, and a death spiral begins,” he said. “Politicians courting favor promise unrealistic wages and benefits in exchange for votes. . . . This naturally politicizes public service and leads to a massively political workforce that is supposed to work for all Americans.”

Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, considers comments like that a warning.

“If President Obama doesn’t get reelected,” Junemann said, “federal unions are going to face an agenda of extinction.”

For Joe Davidson’s previous columns, go to You can follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.