Secret Trump memo details plans to destroy government workers’ unions
Evan Vucci/AP

WASHINGTON—The Government Employees (AFGE), the nation’s largest union for federal workers, has summarized and is publishing, in five installments, a secret Trump administration memo outlining in detail how President Donald Trump and his ideologues systematically plan to destroy federal worker unions. AFGE adds its own analysis. Part 1 and Part 2 have already appeared, with three more to come.

And private-sector workers and unions are next on Trump’s hit list, the memo promises.

The memo by Trump White House aide James Sherk, a former “fellow” at the hard-right Heritage Foundation, is being posted and analyzed on AFGE’s website. It includes restoring Republican President George W. Bush’s ban on unionization of the nation’s 45,000 airport screeners. And that’s just for starters.

It also would ban unions for the Defense Department’s 200,000 civilian workers, the hundreds of thousands of workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and workers at the Department of Homeland Security and the federal Office of Personnel Management—the government’s human resources agency—itself. Trump also wants to abolish OPM.

Killing OPM and transferring its oversight of federal workers to unaccountable White House aides would bring back the spoils system of the 1880s and before, union leaders say.

“The memo, laced with familiar half-truths and outright lies, is proof AFGE has been right all along in saying the administration’s true goal in making changes to personnel rules is to ‘end collective bargaining’ in the federal sector. It’s right there in their own words,” the union states. It also goes far beyond Trump’s prior executive orders trashing federal worker rights.

Trump’s executive orders don’t plan to obliterate unions outright. His memo does.

“End collective bargaining,” the memo sets as a goal. “Government unions impede the efficiency of federal operations and direct the government to put the interests of government employees first. Curtailing collective bargaining in government serves the public good. The [Civil Service Reform Act] allows the president to exempt agencies from its coverage on the basis of national security concerns.” The New York Times and Politico first disclosed the memo’s existence.

Destruction of federal workers and their unions, including cuts in their pay and benefits—also part of Sherk’s memo—is part of an overall right-wing and corporate-backed drive to destroy unions in the U.S. and thus remove the biggest and most effective obstacle to their agenda. That larger drive includes the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision and anti-worker rulings by the courts and the National Labor Relations Board.

One motive of the larger drive, Tom McCabe, CEO of the conservative Freedom Foundation, admitted to The Guardian in 2016, is to “de-fund the left” and thus destroy opposition.

AFGE revealed Sherk also “discusses ways to make it impossible for workers to unionize” in the private sector. “It details steps to boost corporations’ profits by cutting workers’ overtime pay and redefining workers as ‘independent contractors,’” who legally cannot unionize. “It explains ways to shield mega-corporations from being liable for workers’ poor working conditions in franchises,” AFGE summarizes.

“The administration’s divide-and-conquer strategy with respect to organized labor is as disgusting as it is shameful. But it won’t work.

“Across this country, our members and the members of every other labor union are getting educated, organized, and mobilized. As the largest union representing federal employees, AFGE will continue to resist the president’s mob mentality and disrespect for the federal workforce and the work they do.”

Sherk’s White House anti-union memo outlines further moves beyond Trump’s executive orders, which AFGE, the Treasury Employees, and other federal unions have fought both in court and in Congress.

Those executive orders tossed unions out of their small offices in federal buildings—where shop stewards met with members—yanked their phones, fax machines, and computers, banned federal workers from communicating with lawmakers, and told the stewards they would have to represent workers on their own time and on their own dime, among other restrictions.

Graphic: AFGE

Trump’s biggest order also made it easier to fire federal workers, depriving them of many of their due process rights, including the simple right of having some time to prepare to defend themselves and to argue their cases before unbiased decision-makers.

His “national security” excuse would let Trump abolish unions for the screeners—Bush used the same national security rationale to ban unions for them—defense workers and at VA.

AFGE waged a long campaign to get the Democratic Obama administration to overturn Bush’s anti-union edict for the screeners, formally called Transportation Security Officers. And AFGE has defended VA whistleblowers who revealed bosses’ mismanagement of care for veterans, including mismanagement that led to dead vets.

While the memo hasn’t been formally implemented yet, government-wide, AFGE notes Trump is already taking away some civil service protections for the screeners, whose pay is so low the TSOs have the lowest morale of any group of federal workers. One of every four TSOs quits within 16 months of being hired, AFGE says.

Bush also imposed a National Security Personnel System “merit pay” plan on the DOD workers, to give bosses total sway over workers’ pay and promotions, leaving everything open to favoritism. AFGE and a 31-union alliance battling for the DOD workers fought that scheme in court, too, and won. Congress eventually banned DOD from implementing it.


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.