President Donald Trump plans to make it possible for Department of Defense leadership to exempt certain federal employees from statutory requirements that allow them to collectively bargain for benefits with agency officials.

Trump issued a memo Jan. 29 that was published in the Federal Register on Feb. 21, delegating authority to the defense secretary to determine whether any DoD agency or subcomponent would need flexibility or agility that merits removing collective bargaining protections.

“This flexibility requires that military and civilian leadership manage their organizations to cultivate a lethal, agile force adaptive to new technologies and posture changes,” Trump wrote. “Where collective bargaining is incompatible with these organizations’ missions, the Department of Defense should not be forced to sacrifice its national security mission and, instead, seek relief through third parties and administrative fora.”

Officially, the president has the right to exclude any agency or subdivision from collective bargaining coverage under U.S. code if the agency performs intelligence, counterintelligence, investigation or national security work as its primary function. The president must also determine that the collective bargaining requirements could not be applied in a manner that allows for those considerations of national security.

Presidents Ronald Regan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama each issued executive orders using that authority to exempt specific DoD and Department of Justice employees from coverage under the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Program, but none of these actions delegated the determining authority from the president to an agency head.

U.S. lawmakers have already begun to push back.

“This is only the president’s latest effort to erode our nation’s civilian, non-political federal workforce. The careless, slapdash manner in which President Trump is endeavoring to exempt all Department of Defense civilian personnel from the collective bargaining rights that the law guarantees them is unprecedented," said Sen. Mark Warner, D-VA., who plans to lead a Senate letter to the president opposing the policy.

"The hostility and contempt he holds for our dedicated public servants and the institutions they serve is clear at this point. Federal employees in Virginia and across the country can count on my continued resolve to fight against the president’s efforts to undermine their rights.”

The Trump administration has also come under fire from federal labor organizations and members of Congress for its attempts to restrict collective bargaining and union activities overall — most notably for three executive orders that cut official time, that called for the renegotiation of contracts and that pushed for more expedited firing of underperforming employees.

“Denying nearly half a million Defense Department workers the collective bargaining rights guaranteed to them by law since 1962 would be a travesty — and doing it under the guise of ‘national security’ would be a disgrace to the sacred oath and obligation that all federal workers make to their country,” American Federation of Government Employees National Secretary-Treasurer Everett Kelley said in a statement.

“This administration will not stop until it takes away all workers’ rights to form and join a union, and we will not stop doing everything we can to prevent that from happening.”

Defense News reporter Joe Gould contributed to this report.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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