A bipartisan group of six U.S. lawmakers are urging President Donald Trump to reverse his decision to let Pentagon leaders strip collective bargaining rights from military civilian employees.
In the latest instance of Capitol Hill opposition to the move, Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, led a letter sent Thursday to Trump arguing that exemptions to civil service law ought to be well considered and used sparingly.
“More than 700,000 Americans work civilian jobs for the Department of Defense. They are dedicated to the Department’s mission and a part of the Department’s successes,” the senators wrote. “This new memorandum provides the Secretary of Defense and other department officials with the blanket authority to waive the collective bargaining rights of all of these employees when, in fact, labor organizations and collective bargaining in the civil service are in the public interest.”
“A fair collective bargaining process is a cornerstone of American labor law and a right afforded to employees within the federal government,” the letter reads. “The Department of Defense has a history of working with labor unions that represent the interests of employees … We urge you to reconsider this new memorandum and work to protect the collective bargaining rights of federal employees, including those at the Department of Defense.”
The letter was also signed by Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md.; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Gary Peters, D-Mich.
Kaine, and House Armed Services Committee Vice Chair Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., said separately that they would look to resolve the issue through the nascent 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
“I am deeply concerned that this administration, which routinely invokes national security emergencies without merit, is doing so again to deny federal workers at these agencies their earned collective bargaining rights — rights that ensure safe workplaces, fair benefits and just compensation,” Brown said in a statement last week. His district is home to 50,000 federal employees.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper declined to commit to using the new authority while appearing before the HASC and said that he did not request it. He said he was still reviewing the recent presidential decision and that he was not involved in the decision by the White House.
Another HASC Democrat who opposes the rule change, Tactical Air and Land Forces Chairman Donald Norcross, D-N.J., warned Esper, “the folks that you want to be part of your team could be eventually eliminated because of this order that apparently came out of nowhere.”
The memorandum is unique in that it delegates the decision-making power granted by U.S. code from the president to a Cabinet-level official. Past presidents have only used the authority to exempt specific offices or subcomponents through executive order.
That section of code also requires the exemption to prove that collective bargaining protections for those employees “cannot be applied to that agency or subdivision in a manner consistent with national security requirements and considerations.”
Union officials have decried the move, which Trump announced in a Jan. 29 memo made public last week. The president said he would grant the defense secretary the authority to exempt federal employees in the Defense Department from federal collective bargain rules, citing national security concerns and the need for flexibility to adapt to new technologies.
The Trump administration and federal employee unions have had a contentious relationship for the majority of the president’s term, highlighted by prolonged legal battles over three executive orders that restricted collective bargaining and repeated unfair labor practice filings against agency negotiators.
The blanket exemption for Defense Department employees is the first since the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act was enacted.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.