In January, George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush delivered pizza to federal workers, who were on the job without pay — their way of calling for an end to the shutdown. It was a kind gesture that sadly wouldn’t fly were he still in office.
Unions, by their very nature, tend to have a somewhat tumultuous relationship with employers. Federal unions are no exceptions. And unions tend to be a polarizing topic in general. And a partisan one. So, should we be at all surprised that President Donald Trump’s relationship with federal unions is, in the recent words of American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox, “practically nonexistent?”
Trump did, among other things, sign executive orders limiting federal employees use of official time for union duties and calling for the renegotiation of agency-union agreements. Soon after taking office, however, former President George W. Bush issued a series of anti-union executive orders himself.
But Democrats are the ones that support the right to unionize, correct? In theory. But the truth is that in recent years Democrats have done little to bolster unions. You might say they’ve allowed them to wither. Not to mention, a president’s relationship with federal unions does not necessarily dictate his relationship with the federal work-force at large. Both Clinton and Obama kept the lines of communication open with unions, but were dogged by decisions to freeze federal pay, for example.
That said, communication matters. While speaking at the 2019 AFGE legislative conference, Cox said that during past shutdowns (Clinton’s in the 1990s and Obama’s in 2013) “there was daily calls, sometimes several times a day, with OMB and OPM, with all of the unions representing federal workers.” The Trump administration chose to communicate absolutely nothing, he said.
Better communication between the administration and federal unions would not likely have helped the political stalemate in Congress that caused the shutdown. But maybe it would have caused Trump to think twice before claiming feds wanted the shutdown, that they encouraged him to “stay out until you get the funding for the wall.” And maybe better dialogue would’ve kept the workforce informed — ensured employees understood work status, pay expectations, legal rights. Maybe it would’ve sent a message of understanding.
So what is lost by failing to do so? Public service is not the virtuous or cushy career it was once was for several reasons. But nothing will drive new, young talent away faster than leadership that demonstrates a complete disregard for its workers. This is as much about optics as it is about politics. And it’s a failure of this administration, as well as many that came before.
Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.