Starting July 9, federal agencies were required to begin restricting union activities and evict union representation from the federal office spaces they occupied under a series of executive orders signed by President Donald Trump just over a month earlier.
According to union representatives, actions taken at agencies such as the Social Security Administration, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and others have caused chaos in the federal work environment.
“We see panic in people’s faces, and it’s like all of a sudden the policing is gone, and management can do whatever it is they want to do,” said American Federation of Government Employees Local President Barri Sue Bryant, who represents SSA employees in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Bryant said that employees with cases to bring against management don’t know how to contact their union representation anymore, and often have to awkwardly coordinate overlapping break times to even discuss their cases with representation so as not to be on the clock.
According to Bryant, SSA told union reps the Saturday before the order enforcement was to go into effect that they would be denied access to federal resources and that this was their last chance to retrieve representational materials saved to the agency’s intranet.
Some agencies told unions that they would have to pay rent to access the office spaces they had previously been using.
“The Department of Health and Human Services has made a bargaining proposal, driven by the executive orders, that NTEU start paying rent on union office space in HHS properties. We will contest this at the negotiating table,” said National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon.
“These new proposals are not about money. They are a punitive and petty tactic designed to make the labor-management relationship as contentious as possible, to shut down labor organizations and diminish the right of workers to be represented by a union.”
In addition, SSA and other agencies told union representation that officials would need to go through their files to check for personally identifiable information, which included the names of those that were being represented.
According to AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr., this creates a catch−22, where union reps no longer have the information they need to adequately represent federal employees as they are required to do.
“We’re required by law to represent everyone in the bargaining unit, regardless of the membership or not,” said Cox, explaining that employees can then bring a complaint to the Federal Labor Relations Authority that the union is not properly representing them. “It’s trying to set us up for failure so that we can constantly be sued. And the FLRA currently is finding in favor of every duty affairs representation that’s being filed with them, and every charge we’re filing against management, they’re dismissing or not issuing a complaint.”
AFGE Local President John Kostelnik, who represents Bureau of Prisons employees in Victorville, California, said that the chaos caused by the executive orders also presents a physical danger to federal workers, as it is harder for representatives to bring issues of safety and security to management.
“Their attempts to silence us within these executive orders are creating nothing but chaos within our prison systems,” said Kostelnik. “This chaos could have been prevented. Preparation and discussions with the union would have eliminated a lot of these issues.”
According to Cox, the executive orders were also designed in such a way that labor relations officials would have no choice but to enforce them or risk their jobs.
“We are getting feedback from all over the country from our members that have had working relationships with their managers throughout the years, and their managers are saying, ‘Sorry, all we’re doing is following orders,’” said Cox. “This is being set up in a mannerism that if you don’t carry out the 100 percent exact wishes of the president of the United States, he wants his executive order to also zap you.”
Federal unions have already filed lawsuits to stop the enforcement of the executive orders, with bipartisan congressional support.
“The executive orders undermine Congress’ intent,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the unions. He added that the orders were a clear demonstration of Trump’s intent to eliminate federal unions from the government.
Oral arguments for the lawsuit are scheduled for July 25.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.