Trump goes after federal worker unions, agency by agency
Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME, one of the unions battling Trump's effort to replace the merit system with the discredited spoils system in federal hiring. |

WASHINGTON—Not content with throwing federal workers in general under the bus – ousting unions from small offices in buildings, taking away their computers, phones, and fax machines, illegally refusing to bargain, and curbing workers’ rights to speak with Congress and their ability to defend themselves against political and prejudiced bosses — the GOP Trump administration now wants to physically dismantle the unions, agency by agency.

Not only that, but the Trump-named majority on the Federal Labor Relations Authority – the equivalent of the National Labor Relations Board, but only for federal worker-boss relations – now plans to use the U.S. Supreme Court majority’s anti-public worker Janus decision to justify letting federal workers who are union members opt out of their voluntary dues payments at almost any time at all. FLRA’s ruling would play havoc with union revenues and budgets.

If Trump succeeds in dismantling unions, the nation’s two million federal workers and their families would be defenseless against managers’ whims, favoritism, partisanship and restoration of the old spoils system. Those are favorite goals of the worker-hating union-hating radical right – especially the notorious Heritage Foundation, and its White House inmates.

The two latest instances of union-dismantling target the Defense Department’s civilian workers and the Labor Department’s Employment Service, the federal agency – though its personnel are state workers – that helps the jobless with training, resumes and job searches.

Those two assaults led the unions representing the workers, AFSCME for the state Employment Service workers and the Machinists for the defense civilian workers, to fight back. IAM has taken its case to Congress, and AFSCME headed for court.

Briefly, what Trump and his right-wing staffers want to do is reinstitute the old spoils system at the Employment Service and completely ban any unions from representing the 324,000-plus defense workers – everyone from mechanics to teachers to PX employees. IAM represents 50,000 of them.

Trump told Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a Jan. 29 memo Esper could toss the civilian workers in his agency out of unions on “national security” grounds. That’s the same excuse GOP President George W. Bush used to ban unionization of the nation’s 45,000 airport screeners more than 15 years ago.

Federal worker unions, led by the Government Employees (AFGE), informally represented the screeners anyway, and also lobbied lawmakers and the executive branch to reverse Bush’s ruling. His successor, President Obama, did, and AFGE won the representation election.

This time, Machinists President Robert Martinez alerted Congress, and specifically the pro-worker House Democratic majority, to Trump’s scheme. Martinez wants Congress to investigate Trump’s orders to Esper.

“Federal law grants federal employees collective bargaining rights under the law and a signature on a memo should not be able to wipe away these statutory rights,” he wrote.

Trump “questions the loyalty of federal employees who are the most patriotic workers in this country and working for the” military “clearly proves their national duty to protect Americans here and abroad,” Martinez’s letter adds.

Martinez, like other union leaders, also warns lawmakers Trump won’t stop with the feds but wants to destroy all workers’ rights and all unions, including in the private sector.

“President Trump’s goal to take away union representation has been coming since the day he took office. His attack on workers that include the longest federal shutdown in history and the signing of executive orders are an assault that will eventually carry over to the private sector.”

The case involving the Labor Department’s Employment Service is different. That’s because although the federal agency provides the money, state workers actually do the jobs in Employment Service centers nationwide. They served 3.84 million people in the year ending Sept. 30, a figure Trump’s budget estimates won’t change.

And civil service and employment services law and subsequent judicial rulings make clear that job aid by the states’ Employment Service workers is supposed to be done in a non-partisan, unprejudiced manner.

Faced with this nationwide effort to end the merit system and civil service protections for state ES workers, AFSCME turned to the U.S. courts on Jan. 18. Not only would aid become partisan and the spoils system return but past discrimination at work against people of color, now barred, would, too, AFSCME said.

“The merit system requirement has been set forth in an unbroken line of regulations by the Secretary of Labor beginning in 1938, and also by the federal Office of Personnel Management after Congress enacted the Civil Service Reform Act in 1978 and a federal workforce training law 12 years ago, its suit in U.S. District Court for D.C. says.

“Under those statutes, the merit system requirement, acknowledged as a statutory requirement, has been reaffirmed and ratified by Congress multiple times through the past century and into the current one.”

“Nonetheless, on Jan. 6, 2020, for the first time in history, the Department of Labor through… the Employment Training Administration issued a final regulation titled ‘Wagner-Peyser Act Staffing Flexibility’ that purports to eliminate the longstanding merit system requirement.” Wagner-Peyser set up the joint federal-state unemployment system, including company payments and state civil service administration of the Employment Service centers.

The suit is very blunt about what would result if Trump abolishes the merit system. Not only would workers lose their jobs, but governments could “contract out” the Employment Service workers’ duties – and/or reinstitute the disgraced spoils system of the 1800s.

“Wagner-Peyser established the Employment Service for, among other things, the purpose of professionalizing the delivery of employment services, establishing a uniform, national structure for the delivery of such services, to ensure the individuals performing such services are free from political influence and are selected and advanced on the basis of objective standards of merit,” it says.

AFSCME President Lee Saunders said in a statement that workers who lose their jobs to unfair foreign trade would particularly get hurt if Trump wins and the spoils system surfaces in the Employment Service. Though Saunders did not say so, Trump’s budget for fiscal 2021, which starts Oct. 1, would also cut that Trade Adjustment Assistance by 7%, to $633.6 million.

“Our union has fought for this merit-based system for decades because public service workers are committed to their communities,” Saunders stated. “The public deserves to know that they are receiving assistance from dedicated professionals who have no other interest than ensuring they get the unbiased help they deserve when seeking employment.”

Meanwhile, in a 2-1 “guidance statement” published Feb. 14, Trump-named FLRA Chair Colleen Kiko said the agency, at Trump regime request, is changing the rules for when federal workers can stop paying union dues.  The new answer: Almost anytime at all.

Right now, after a federal worker opts in to voluntarily paying the dues in a federal union-represented agency, the worker has a window of several weeks, once a year on the anniversary of the opt-in, to opt-out. Kiko and the other Trumpite FLRA member told the administration that workers can now opt-out at any time at all starting at that first anniversary.

“The most reasonable way to interpret the phrase “any such assignment may not be revoked for a period of [one] year” is that the phrase governs only the first year of an assignment,” FLRA said. “Except for the limiting conditions” in federal worker law, “nothing in the text…expressly addresses the revocation of dues assignments after the first year.”

Trump’s Office of Personnel Management and Kiko both based their ruling on the Janus decision, where the Supreme Court’s five-man GOP-named majority effectively made every single state and local government worker nationwide a “free rider,” able to use union services and protections without paying one red cent for them.

AFGE Secretary-Treasurer Everett Kelly told Government Executive that FLRA’s change was “union-busting.”

“It’s part of a pattern of behavior by this administration that shows no respect for federal employees’ voluntary choice” to belong to unions, for their contracts or for their rights, he said.


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).