Federal workers protest Trump’s “impasse” at Health and Human Services
NTEU members conducted informational picketing in front of the Department of Health and Human Services headquarters to protest the agency’s bad faith bargaining on a new contract. | NTEU

WASHINGTON—When Ty Owens walked into his local Social Security office in Manassas, Va., for help, he had to wait in line for five hours. If Donald Trump and his Health and Human Services Secretary, former drug company executive Alex Azar, have their way, that wait could get a lot longer.

That’s because Azar’s operatives, after one 10-minute “bargaining” session in June with the Treasury Employees, who represent 14,000 HHS workers, threw their regressive demands on the table, gave the union two weeks to yield, then got up, walked out and declared an “impasse” in negotiations.

That would let Trump’s government impose their “contract” on the union.

And that imposition would lead to longer lines s and lesser quality service as federal workers depart in droves. It also brought Owens, president of NTEU Local 229 at HHS headquarters and dozens of his colleagues out into the HHS headquarters driveway for a noontime protest on Oct. 25.

The HHS workers wielded hand-made signs such as “Public service deserves public respect” and “We’ve come so far. Don’t take it back, Azar!” They drew dozens of sympathetic honks from passing motorists and enthusiastic support from Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., Congress’ non-voting delegate from the Nation’s Capital.

To cheers, she promised the future of the NTEU members, and the rest of the nation’s two million federal workers would be far different if Democrats recapture Congress on Nov. 6.

Right now, under Trump, Azar and other Trump-named Cabinet officers, it’s bad.

“Our contract expired in 2016,” Owens explained in an interview as his colleagues marched in an informational picket line. Management’s “contract,” he added, “would make everything, from telework to annual leave, at management’s discretion.”


HHS, under Trump’s minions, “is already a hostile worksite,” and Owens said “the dissing of federal workers” under Azar’s imposed contract would only make things worse, lessening service for everyone.

Treasury Employees President Tony Reardon made many of the same points in fiery remarks to the crowd while outlining how Azar’s management team acted in that sole bargaining session. “To come to the table and declare impasse after one damn session is unacceptable and wrong,” he declared.

There haven’t been any sessions since, and a key NTEU demand is for HHS reps to come back to the table and bargain in good faith, as federal law requires. Reaching a fair contract, Reardon added, “is the only way to ensure HHS has the high-quality employees they need” to serve the public.

“If they cared about the employees, and the mission of this department and the health and welfare of this country, they would come back and bargain in good faith,” he added.

In an interview afterwards, Reardon said the HHS take-it-or-leave-it proposals at that one June session are similar to the anti-worker edicts Trump promulgated just before Memorial Day. “It’s not that hard to draw a line between the May 25 executive orders” – which a federal judge in D.C. tossed out in August on both constitutional and legal grounds – “and some of the things HHS is doing” to its workers, he said.

Those Trump orders trashed federal workers and their unions, made it easier for bosses to fire workers, curbed worker due process appeals, and told union reps they had to handle grievances on their own time and on their own dime.

Trump’s orders also threw federal worker unions – including the Treasury Employees and the Government Employees (AFGE) – out of their small offices in federal buildings, barred workers from communicating with Congress and even denied them use of phones and fax machines.

Those measures and others in Trump’s orders have led both Reardon and AFGE President J. David Cox, a former VA psychiatric nurse, to say Trump really wants to bring back the politically tilted spoils system that existed before civil service laws were enacted, starting in 1883.

“The majority of my members are exceedingly honored to work for the American people,” Reardon said in the follow-up interview. “But from my experience, what Trump is doing is an attack on the entire civil service system and federal employees in general.”

If the protest and the publicity don’t shame Trump’s man Azar and his minions back to real bargaining, Owens figures Reardon and the union will have to head for court again.

Of his members, Reardon concluded: “They’re fed up. They clearly understand this administration does not value them.”


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 tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.