President Donald Trump’s relationship with collective bargaining groups in the federal government could not be characterized as a healthy one.
Beginning with the Trump administration’s efforts to make federal employees easier to remove and to restructure federal pay and benefits, the relationship between Trump officials and union leaders fell even further with the signing of three executive orders that restricted unions’ ability to operate within government agencies and mandated a hardline approach to collective bargaining negotiations.
A lawsuit claiming that such orders violated the original intent of Congress in establishing legal protections for federal collective bargaining initially barred such orders from implementation, but an appeal on that decision found that the federal courts were not an appropriate avenue for challenging the orders.
In the just over a year since the orders were allowed to be fully implemented, union officials have reported hostile leadership and stymied collective bargaining negotiations.
Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said that there was not a thing he could think of that the Trump administration has done in regard to federal employees that he would want to continue.
But with President-elect Joe Biden’s administration set to take over the White House in one week, an administration that has already voiced its support for organized labor at large as well as in the federal government specifically, union leaders say they have hope that such executive actions will be overturned.
The Biden transition website lists the protection of collective bargaining across industries as a fundamental part of improving the American economy.
“This starts with passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, providing public service and federal government workers with bargaining rights, and taking other steps to make it easier for workers to organize unions and collectively bargain,” the site says.
As Trump’s executive orders are aimed at restricting union activities and mandating how agencies collectively bargain, and federal union leaders have said they are hopeful that Biden will act to remove such restrictions as part of his goal to support organized labor.
The Biden campaign website states that it will be a day-one priority for him to “restore federal employees’ rights to organize and bargain collectively, and will direct his agencies to bargain with federal employee unions over non-mandatory subjects of bargaining.”
Biden’s pro-union stance does not necessarily mean that there will be nothing for union and agency leaders to disagree over in the bargaining process but messaging from the top of the administration will likely mean that those agency leaders will be encouraged to work with the unions as much as possible, rather than against them.
“A new administration, one that values its workers and recognizes the law that says collective bargaining is in the public interest, can resolve those in a way that restores the rights and benefits that employees have lost,” said Reardon on a press call, acknowledging that the relationships between union members and agency negotiators have been damaged and will need rebuilding.
“I think it’s important for the Biden administration to be very clear with agencies what their expectation is of them in how they lead and manage their workforces.”
Federal unions have also called on the Biden team to work on removing officials that they say have been detrimental to agency mission, such as those at the Social Security Administration that received no-confidence votes from multiple unions that represent employees at that agency.
Those calls also include worry over politically appointed Trump officials that could try to “burrow” into the government by converting to career positions so that they can continue to impact policy.
“Americans can’t afford to have unqualified political cronies instead of the nation’s top experts leading efforts to distribute desperately needed coronavirus vaccines and carry out the priorities of the Biden administration,” Everett Kelley, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a recent news release.
“For the current administration, whose moral authority is nonexistent, to try to extend its policymaking influence beyond the president’s term through this naked power grab would be an affront to the will of the American people.”
Jessie Bur covered the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees for Federal Times.