Federal worker unions head for court showdown with Trump
"We are AFGE.” | The AFGE website.

WASHINGTON—Unions representing federal workers headed for a July 25 showdown in federal court on their lawsuits against anti-worker GOP President Donald Trump over his executive orders which started taking effect July 1 stripping many workers of their rights.

The start of those edicts was not the only bad news the nation’s 2.1 million federal workers got in the first two weeks of July. Trump nominated federal appellate judge Brett Kavanaugh, who has notable anti-worker, anti-woman and pro-corporate rulings on his resume, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And 11 radical right wing GOP congressmen, led by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., introduced legislation to literally ban unions at the IRS. If approved and signed by Trump, that measure would smash one particular union, the Treasury Employees (NTEU).

But in a piece of good news, current and former lawmakers who deal with federal worker issues – including two retired U.S. representatives who helped draft current civil service legislation – filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, saying Trump’s orders break civil service law and would harm not just the workers but the country. In a letter, three Senate Democrats also backed the unions.

The legal showdown before U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in D.C., features almost two dozen unions, led by the Government Employees (AFGE) and NTEU, challenging the legality of Trump’s three anti-federal worker executive orders issued just before Memorial Day.

“NTEU has sued to block the executive orders because they violate established laws on labor-management relations by strictly limiting the ability to represent employees, weakening due process, and restricting collective bargaining at government agencies. The orders, if implemented, would open the door to patronage and favoritism by giving political appointees unfettered power to discriminate against certain employees,” the union explained.

“The orders President Trump issued May 25 are a direct assault on the constitutional rights of federal workers and a challenge to the democratic principles on which this nation was founded,” said AFGE, the second union leading the lawsuits.

One Trump edict tells federal union shop stewards to handle grievances and bargaining with management on their own time and their own dime. That violates federal civil service law, the unions point out. But forcing unions out of paid “official time” has been a longtime House GOP goal.

A second order lets bosses fire workers after only 30 days if they think the workers are incompetent. It does not set any standards for competence. It also curbs or kills worker appeal rights. Federal workers judged as performing poorly now have 60-120 days, depending on the agency, to correct their ways.

The third Trump diktat orders agencies to rewrite collective bargaining agreements with AFGE, NTEU and other federal worker unions to take away negotiations over such items as health care, pensions and some working conditions.

The unions say these violate laws covering federal workers, the U.S. Constitution, or both. That didn’t stop Trump’s Office of Personnel Management from starting the orders’ implementation on July 1.

On the workers’ side, the consumer watchdog Public Citizen drafted the friend-of-the-court brief and sent it to Jackson. The four lawmakers including retired Reps. Bill Clay Sr., D-Mo., and James Leach, R-Iowa signed on to it.

The other two signers are current Reps. Peter King, R-N.Y., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., top Democrat on the House panel that writes civil service laws. Leach and Clay, then the committee chair, helped write the nation’s latest basic civil service law 40 years ago.

“The friend-of-the-court brief makes a powerful statement about growing concern among Democrats and Republicans that the executive orders would upend established norms in labor-management rela-tions and open the door to patronage, which would be a disservice to taxpayers who expect an indepen-dent and nonpartisan workforce to deliver important government services,” NTEU said in a statement.

The brief says Cummings, King, Leach and Clay believe in “a merit-based, non-partisan, effective federal workforce.” The four also “believe collective bargaining, the right to representation, and procedures to resolve workplace disputes fairly are vital to such a workforce,” it states.

“NTEU is grateful to these four esteemed lawmakers for coming forward to defend our merit-based civil service system,” union President Tony Reardon said in a statement. “And who better to declare that the executive orders violate the spirit of the civil service law than two of the distinguished members of Congress who wrote it 40 years ago?”

“Today’s brief demonstrates the mounting bipartisan recognition that the president’s three executive orders would unravel four decades of established law and the right for frontline employees to have workplace representation,” Reardon said. “The Civil Service Reform Act is a cornerstone of our democracy and no president should be allowed to override it just by signing a piece of paper.”

Reardon’s union also must fend off Gosar’s ban, HR6268. “Given the everyday functions of the IRS, there is no good reason why the agency shouldn’t also be on this list” of federal agencies where unions are banned, said Gosar. “This legislation is another step in the right direction toward stopping federal government tax collectors and other bureaucrats from unionizing and entering into collective bargaining agreements at the taxpayer’s expense.”

“Like the president’s anti-labor executive orders, this is just another effort to deny working men and women basic rights in the workplace,” Reardon replied.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).