Unionization is widespread across the federal government. How many federal labor unions are there? The Office of Personnel Management lists over 100 unions representing at least one bargaining unit of employees in its Federal Labor Management Information System.

And though unions in the public and private sectors work under many of the same core principles, federal unions are unique in some of their restrictions and legal rights as established by Congress.

Which federal jobs are unionized?

More than half of the jobs in the federal government are classified as bargaining unit employees, according to the federal jobs site, meaning that they are represented by a labor union.

The Federal Labor Relations Authority determines which employees share a “clear and identifiable community of interest” and are eligible to form a bargaining unit. A group of employees at an agency that is not currently classified as a bargaining unit can file a petition with the FLRA to have their group recognized as a bargaining unit and eligible for representation. The FLRA, upon approval, would then oversee an election for those employees to select representation.

Some employees are excluded from forming a bargaining unit under law, including confidential employees, those engaged in personnel or national security work, and most people in management and supervisory positions.

Some managers and supervisors are allowed to be in a union if their classification as a collective bargaining unit was established before October 1978, when limitations on those units were laid down in U.S. Code.

How do I know if I’m a bargaining unit employee?

Some job listings state that the open position is covered by a bargaining unit, meaning that any person hired for that position would fall into that category.

According to National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon, many agency onboarding processes include a union orientation period, where a union representative can explain details about the organization, including how new employees came become members of the union that represents them.

“If they weren’t listening or they did not have the benefit of an orientation process because of COVID or whatever, then typically our chapter folks will reach out to those individuals to inform them about NTEU, that they are in the bargaining unit and what membership at NTEU affords them,” Reardon told Federal Times.

A bargaining unit is only ever covered by one union, though unions may represent many different bargaining units across the government.

What is included with federal labor union membership?

People hired for a bargaining unit position automatically become unit employees, meaning that the union is obligated to represent them in official meetings with management and negotiate on their behalf for agency policies concerning the nature of their employment. Employees receive these services even if they don’t join the union.

Employees are entitled to representation in situations such as meetings expected to lead to discipline and more formal sessions with a manager and bargaining unit representative on employment conditions, according to Melissa McIntosh, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges.

Union members, on the other hand, pay dues to the labor organization that represents their unit. Union dues generally cost $15 to $25 per pay period, depending on the union and the employee’s pay level. Labor union members get access to more benefits and have more influence over the union’s priorities than nonmembers.

“For folks that aren’t members, there’s a couple of things they don’t have. There’s certain types of representation that they’re not guaranteed from the union. They don’t necessarily get a say on what goes into the contract, and so there are benefits from being involved in the union that are, I think, transformational,” David Cann, director of membership and organization at the American Federation of Government Employees, told Federal Times.

“You’re still being protected at the job, which is good. You have due process, you have conditions of employment that your coworkers have banded together to negotiate that are always vastly better than what the agency would offer, but you’re still choosing to let somebody else decide what your job is for you.”

Union members also have the ability to vote in union elections, determine bargaining priorities, ratify collective bargaining agreements, and access informational materials and notices published by the union.

According to Reardon, the union itself also benefits from widespread membership because that buy-in gives union representatives a stronger hand when negotiating collective bargaining agreements.

What are union dues used for?

Each union allocates their dues differently, but many put that funding toward hiring negotiation specialists, lawyers, health and safety specialists, compensation specialists, congressional lobbyists and communication personnel.

The dues can also be used to host conferences and training sessions for union representatives.

Those dues largely cannot be used for political activity, though federal unions generally have political action committees that accept voluntary donations used toward campaign contributions.

Can federal unions go on strike?

No, the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 prohibits federal unions from striking, as the work of the government is deemed too crucial to interrupt during union and management disagreements.

But that same law also states that “labor organizations and collective bargaining in the civil service are in the public interest,” requiring agencies to bargain in good faith with union negotiators.

Federal unions don’t have a direct influence on employee pay and benefit options, though the lobbyists hired through union dues spend much of their time advocating for Congress to pass legislation that benefits government workers, including annual pay increases and expansions of benefits like paid parental leave.

What is a collective bargaining agreement?

Bargaining agreements or contracts between agencies and unions govern the terms of employment for the employees in that bargaining unit. This includes telework policies, disciplinary procedures, health and safety measures, and how much work time union representatives can use to carry out work for the labor organization.

Employees with union leadership positions use that work time, called official time, to negotiate with agencies, represent bargaining unit employees and collaborate on policy with agency officials. Official time has been the center of some controversy in recent years.

Opponents argue that it forces agencies to pay employees to do work that is not part of their job description, causing the agency to spend more money to hire more people to cover those duties.

But advocates of official time argue that the business conducted during that time actually saves the government money by preventing grievance procedures from turning into costly court proceedings, protecting whistleblowers from retaliation, and ensuring that agencies operate efficiently with the input of the employees performing the work.

Collective bargaining agreements can also include provisions specific to that bargaining unit’s work.

“My unit is exclusively administrative law judges. Because of that we have a very strong emphasis on decisional independence, and our judicial function article is very important to us. Because we want to be able to ensure integrity in the hearings that we preside over, said McIntosh.

An agency can at any time notify the union that it wishes to renegotiate the contract, resulting in both parties meeting over the clauses that the agency proposes to change. If the agency and union can’t come to an agreement, they can appeal to the FLRA for a mediator. If that fails to work, either party can then appeal to the Federal Service Impasses Panel, which reviews the contract proposals and can issue an imposition of contract terms that it deems fair.

Who runs federal labor unions?

Chapter presidents, who represent the bargaining units of employees, are elected by union members. Chapters may also have additional elected positions.

Union members may also decide to become stewards or area representatives, responsible for knowing and supporting the bargaining units in their offices, or they could take on roles sending communications to members, representing coworkers and collecting employee input.

How does a new president affect government labor contracts?

Each presidential administration takes a different approach to union relations. President Donald Trump issued executive orders that restricted union activities and prescribed collective bargaining objectives for agency negotiators.

On the other hand, the Biden administration has taken an openly pro-union approach, rescinding the previous orders and instructing agencies to include unions in many forms of decision-making, even those not required by law.

A new administration can influence unions’ predominant activities, such protests and legal action, or collaborative meetings.

“When you have a union friendly administration, you really have an opportunity to get under the hood and engage in collective bargaining,” said Cann, explaining that agencies may choose to bargain over issues that they are not obligated to address with unions, such as staffing shortfalls.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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