THE Trump administration in the USA has asked Congress to approve – as part of its fiscal 2020 budget – legislation that will make it easier to fire or to discipline federal workers.
It would also seek to ‘make a series of pro-management changes to the law governing collective bargaining rights’ at federal agencies.
In this context the General Services Administration’s budget justification for 2020 includes an array of legislative proposals pertaining to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), premised on the idea that Congress will approve the White House’s plan to redistribute OPM’s various functions among GSA, the Defence Department and the Executive Office of the President.
Included in its strategy to modernise the civil service, along with plans to issue new pay systems and temporary hiring authorities, is a request for Congress to codify the provisions of a 2018 executive order, since struck down by a federal court, to shorten the firing process.
If enacted, the standard length of performance improvement periods for federal employees would be 30 days, although agencies could choose to extend such periods on a case-by-case basis.
Additionally, the proposal would shorten the length of advanced notice required before taking a variety of disciplinary and adverse personnel actions, and the planned Highly Qualified Experts term hiring authority would require employees to serve ‘at the pleasure of the agency’, without access to grievance and arbitration procedures.
It also calls for provisions of another invalidated executive order narrowing the scope of grievance procedures available to bargaining unit employees. The Trump administration has appealed that legal decision to the US Court of Appeals.
The White House has also proposed a sizeable overhaul of the operations of the Federal Labour Relations Authority (FLRA), which presides over Labour-management disputes at federal agencies.
Under the new proposal, there would be a ‘single, integrated process’ to resolve all bargaining disputes, rather than the current system, where unfair Labour practice complaints and disputes over the negotiability of bargaining proposals each have different review processes.
And that would prevent the FLRA from siding with a union ‘where such remedies would adversely affect the mission or budget of the agency involved in the dispute’.
Steve Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said he reads the proposal as an effort to make it harder for the FLRA to make decisions objectively.
‘I’d read “streamline” in this case as taking away the FLRA’s ability to properly review cases and to take advantage of case law and other options available to them,’ he said.
The proposal would also grant the director of OPM the ability to ‘intervene or otherwise participate’ in an FLRA case if the director believes ‘an erroneous decision will have a substantial impact on civil service law’.
Although it is not clear how the director may intervene in a case, Lenkart said such a change would endanger the independence of the FLRA.
‘It seems like they want the OPM director to serve as an overseer, impeding FLRA’s responsibility, which is absolutely counter-intuitive against the current law,’ he said.
‘When the Civil Service Commission was broken up in 1979, the same year that they created OPM, the FLRA, (the Merit Systems Protection Board) and all of these agencies, the idea was to separate these functions because they had to be independent and they all serve different purposes.
‘They wanted the tribunals to be independent as much as possible from executive branch leadership to keep the government apolitical and efficient and effective across the board.
‘The administration also wants to roll back a practice for years favoured by both Labour and management for resolving some disputes, where parties would go through negotiated grievance or arbitration procedures to avoid the time and cost of litigating complaints.
‘This proposal “would remove the option for bargaining unit employees to file a negotiated grievance and seek binding arbitration on matters where established statutory appeals processes exist, such as agency actions taken for performance or misconduct and which otherwise are appealable to the Merit Systems Protection Board” (MSPB), the plan states.’
Lenkart described that provision as an effort to restrict employees’ due process rights, forcing them and their union representatives to engage in a costly and adversarial process, despite the strong track record of grievances and arbitration.
‘The MSPB over the past 15, maybe even 20, years has had a lot of success with its arbitration programme,’ Lenkart said. ‘Getting Labour and management to step aside and discuss what the issues are and solve them without going into costly litigation has been good for both sides.
‘The agency and the employee often end up with something much more agreeable than if it went through the courts.’
In a statement on Friday, the campaign said it had recognised its staffers’ decision to unionise, making it the first major-party presidential campaign to employ a formally organised workforce.
Sanders tweeted that he was ‘proud’ of the historical marker and, taking a page from his stump speech, tied the development to his own pro-union message.
‘We cannot just support unions with words, we must back it up with actions,’ Sanders said. ‘On this campaign and when we are in the White House, we are going to make it easier for people to join unions, not harder.’
The staffers will be represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which said that anyone below the rank of deputy director would be eligible to join the bargaining unit. The campaign voluntarily recognised the group, the union said in a statement, after a majority of 44 eligible employees signed union cards.
‘Negotiations on a contract are expected to begin soon,’ the union added, ‘and the bargaining unit could ultimately reach 1,000 members. The move will put other Democratic presidential campaigns, especially the ones competing for progressive voters, under pressure to follow suit and at least remain neutral if their staffers decide to organise.’
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro’s campaign has signalled it would back a similar move. On the campaign trail, Sanders has repeatedly vowed in speeches – as he did in 2016 – to make it easier for workers to unionise, often tying it to his push for a rise in the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour.
‘We expect (unionising) will mean pay parity and transparency on the campaign, with no gender bias or harassment, and equal treatment for every worker,’ United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 President Mark P. Federici added in a statement on Friday, ‘whether they’re in Washington DC, Iowa, New Hampshire or anywhere else.’
In the aftermath of 2016, Sanders implemented what he described in January as a robust new reporting structure during his 2018 Senate re-election bid – independent from the campaign – for allegations of sexual harassment and ‘training for all employees on this issue’.
While Sanders’ is the first large-scale presidential campaign to unionise, the move comes in the wake of a growing wave of organisation within political operations – for candidates and causes – that have for decades been effectively accepted as difficult and occasionally dangerous working environments.
Campaign workers for Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state were represented by the Campaign Workers Guild during the fall mid-term elections, making her the first incumbent member of Congress with a unionised campaign staff.
The campaign staff of Cynthia Nixon, who ran as a progressive outsider in New York’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, was among the handful of others to take similar steps.
- 20th March 2019: The IUPAT (International Union of Painters and Allied Trades) organised a march and rally in Nashville, Tennessee calling (on) Skanska (a leading US development and construction firm – NL) to pay workers who are owed nearly $2 million dollars in wages.
The demonstrators marched from the JW Marriott hotel to the Nashville office of Skanska and finally to Skanska’s new ‘Fifth and Broadway’ project.
The main speaker at the rally was Vonda McDaniel, President of the Nashville Central Labour Council.
The IUPAT will continue its campaign against Skanska until all workers are paid their due wages and Skanska reforms their exploitative subcontracting model.