Workforce

White House looks to boost federal employee union participation

Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks to Department of Defense personnel, with President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando) 

Vice President Kamala Harris visits the Pentagon on Feb. 10, 2021 (Defense Department photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

The White House is taking action to increase federal employee union participation in an effort it says could have ripple effects in other workplaces.

Agencies are being directed to make sure new hires know about their union eligibility and how to contact their union, and existing feds will be reminded of that information more regularly.

"We are proud as the Biden Harris administration in what we believe we will be, which is the most pro-union administration in the history of America," said Vice President Kamala Harris at an event on Wednesday announcing the changes.

OPM issued guidance to agencies with the new policies, which are meant to encourage worker organizing and collective bargaining in the federal workplace as part of the administration's overall labor policy.

The administration says these moves will remove barriers unions face in federal workplaces to increase membership.

"OPM is proud to work on behalf of the Biden-Harris administration to help launch this government-wide effort today that will remove barriers and obstacles in federal workplaces, which impede the union's ability to strengthen union density and inform civil servants about their collective bargaining rights," said OPM director Kiran Ahuja, who spoke at the event with Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

Currently, about 33% of bargaining unit employees in the federal government – a group 1.2 million strong out of the 2.1 million non-postal employees in the government – are dues-paying members of unions.

The largest federal employees union welcomed the move.

"For too long, there has been a concerted effort by corporations and wealthy individuals to prevent working people from organizing and bargaining collectively… Indeed, in the past decades we saw this fight play out inside our own federal government," Everett Kelley, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement. "We applaud the steps that the Biden administration is taking today to roll back attacks on labor unions, help federal employees understand their union rights and support them in exercising those rights."

Guidance documents encourage agencies to include bargaining unit status and union affiliation of the bargaining unit in job announcements. They also recommend that agencies give unions themselves the ability to share information with new bargaining unit employees during orientation sessions about their rights to join a union.

Agencies are already required to annually remind feds about their rights to union representation. New OPM guidance to agencies directs agencies to issue periodic notice throughout the year, and include contact information for the union in that messaging.

The new policies are part of a broader report being sent to the White House on how the administration can address barriers to labor organizing. That report will include more recommended executive actions. It's being produced by the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, which was established in April via executive order.

"We believe that a stronger workforce is the work that will happen to create actually high productivity and lower turnover," Harris said. "We also believe that this is about respecting the dignity of all work and respecting the dignity of workers."

Harris added: "We're doing this because we believe and know that workers are entitled to be paid wages commensurate with their value."

The administration directed OPM to create recommendations for more feds to be paid at least $15 an hour in executive order issued days into Biden's term. The Biden-Harris budget proposal for FY 2022 recommended a 2.7% increase for feds, lower than the 3.2% raise being advocated for by some federal employee groups and congressional Democrats.

About the Author

Natalie Alms is a staff writer at FCW covering the federal workforce. She is a recent graduate of Wake Forest University and has written for the Salisbury (N.C.) Post. Connect with Natalie on Twitter at @AlmsNatalie.

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