Federal unions push back against 'chaos'

In court, at agencies and at rallies, federal employee unions are battling what they're calling an unprecedented assault on the workforce.

Feds rally outside a Washington, D.C. courthouse where a union lawsuit is being tried. Photo credit: Chase Gunter
 

Unionized feds rally outside a Washington, D.C. courthouse on July 25. (Photo credit: Chase Gunter)

The Trump administration has been rethinking the size and scope of the civilian government workforce since inauguration, instituting a hiring freeze a legislative push to make it easier to fire feds and issuing multiple executive orders targeting union activity at federal agencies.

Three recent executive orders have sown confusion and chaos at the agency level, union leaders say, infringing on the work and the rights of federal employees to unprecedented degrees.

While there have been efforts to limit union influence, freeze pay and cut benefits in the past, the difference this time around is that these efforts are landing "all at the same time," one representative with the American Federation of Government Employees told FCW.

"This is a whole new ballgame," the representative said.

On a July 12 press call, J. David Cox, national president of AFGE, said "no one knows what the rules are going to be, how the game is going to be played."

"Wherever we are at, we're experiencing chaos," he said.

Unions are fighting back in court, at agencies, on Capitol Hill and in the streets.

On July 26 at the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Judge Ketanji B. Jackson heard arguments in a case brought by unions representing federal employees to overturn the executive orders relating to collective bargaining negotiations and restrictions on the ability of unionized feds to conduct union business on the clock – known as "official time."

Union lawyers argued that the president does not have the authority to issue executive orders governing federal employees and labor-management relations under the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute. The defense, meanwhile, argued the orders set goals for agencies in collective bargaining negotiations.

Before the hearing started a crowd of red-clad demonstrators -- as part of the #RedforFeds campaign to elicit support for unionized government employees -- gathered outside the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse to protest the executive orders.

The employees carried signs reading "proud union member," “proud public employees” and myriad anti-Trump posters. They represented a variety of labor unions, including the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Treasury Employees Union and many others.

Democratic leaders of House and Senate, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer, (D-N.Y.) were among the many lawmakers to speak.

On the floor of the Senate, Mark Warner (D-Va.) offered a plea for better treatment of feds as a sound management tactic.

"How you treat your workforce reflects the quality of service that workforce provides to its customers," said Warner, who was a telecommunications investor and executive in the private sector before going into politics. "And in this case, the customers of the federal government are the American people."

Like many of the employees at the rally, Freda McDonald, vice-president of an AFGE local chapter representing employees at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said she took personal time to attend.

Maria Ronquillo, a registered nurse at a Washington, D.C.-based Veterans Affairs hospital, told FCW the official time executive order will weaken the union and prevent representatives from handling workplace complaints.

Specifically, she said her facility has started recording the amount of official time employees take and what they’re doing while on that time. "That's new," she said. "Like, last week."

Ronquillo noted she also took personal time to attend. "Good thing I worked last night," she said. "Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to come."

Chuck McCarter, president of the Federal Education Association, told FCW he also took personal time to attend the rally and said the official time executive order would affect his union’s ability to represent employees "a lot."

"We have a small number of union officials on official time" designated to work with management and handle workforce issues, he said. "If we don’t have that time, we can't solve those problems."

Official time changes

Under existing arrangements, a few employees are generally allowed to serve as union officials stationed at government agencies, handling grievances, contract negotiations, legislative relations and other aspects of union business.

Under a May executive order, unionized feds are now limited to spending 25 percent of their time on union duties.

Jim Rihel, a Department of Veterans Affairs employee and AFGE representative, told FCW the aftermath of the executive orders has caused unions "considerable problems in representing employees."

Another issue at VA is how to reintegrate those individuals who have been spending their time on union matters back into patient care activities.

VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour told FCW that approximately 175 VA medical professionals will be affected by the implementation of the official time order.

VA sent field offices guidance on how to handle these employees July 17.

"The guidance included management meeting with the affected union representatives who will be returning to their position of record and discussing the employee's position, expected duties, supervisory chains, and any appropriate and necessary training, orientation and education to return the employee to duty," Cashour said.

Rihel said the return to duty "is going to be very different" for these employees, adding that VA management is supposed to design a training plan for the implementation.

"They shouldn't just be thrown back out there, but I can't say with any certainty that's not what will happen," he said. "They're just so haphazard, it's tough to say."

'Poster-child for union-busting'

Agencies have already started to move on renegotiating union contracts and change what union officials can do on agency property.

Shortly after the executive orders were announced in May, the Department of Education terminated an Obama-era contract and renegotiated one in line with the executive orders, a move opposed by federal unions.

And unions say it’s not just changes to contracts that have changed their operations; they’re also being relocated from agency property. The Social Security Administration “is the most active as far as a full purging of the unions,” said the AFGE representative.

NTEU president Tony Reardon said that SSA "made a series of unilateral changes during bargaining that erode important employee rights," including "removing NTEU office space at the agency and banning NTEU communications with employees through agency email."

Bargaining on a new union contract at SSA began July 23. 

Katrina Lopez, vice-president of a local AFGE chapter representing SSA employees, said on a press call that the president of a local AFGE council "was denied the right to participate on the bargaining team" for those negotiations and added that unions were required physically move out of SSA offices by the end of July.

She also detailed that unions were not allowed to take with them anything with personally identifiable information, not allowed to use shredding machines or other office supplies, and that they were required to remove of bulletin boards containing references to AFGE on them.

"I believe we are the poster child from Trump union-busting efforts," Lopez said.

SSA did not respond to FCW’s request for comment.

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