The 2016 presidential election that propelled Donald Trump into the White House ushered in the most anti-government, anti-union era in more than three decades, since then-President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers 35 years ago within months of taking office. Trump himself campaigned on a promise to rid government of “stupid people.” His budget director wants to slash thousands of government jobs and pare back retirement benefits for federal workers. And Congressional Republicans feel newly empowered to change longstanding civil service laws designed to protect workers from politically-motivated job actions and curb union officials’ compensation for time spent representing employees on labor issues.
Despite all this—or perhaps because of it—federal employee unions are flourishing. The three largest unions have reported a surge in the number of dues-paying members since Trump’s election.
The American Federation of Government Employees, for instance, saw more new members sign up in the final two months of 2016 than during all of 2013, when federal employees’ pay was frozen for the third straight year and the union saw its slowest growth in more than a decade. Membership has grown by an additional 4,458 employees so far this year. And while the National Federation of Federal Employees has traditionally seen 2 to 3 percent annual growth over the last 10 years, officials say they are on track for 7 percent growth in 2017.
Unions also have claimed a number of early victories in preserving resources and benefits for their members during the new administration. They have worked behind the scenes to scale back the steep cuts to the federal workforce and to federal employee retirement programs Trump proposed in his fiscal 2018 budget, and they have enjoyed some early signs of success on Capitol Hill.
Source: American Federation of Government Employees
While the House Budget Committee has asked its colleagues on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to cut $32 billion from the deficit over the next 10 years in part by reducing civil servants’ retirement, there has been steadily growing bipartisan pushback against such cuts, which include an increase of 6 percentage points in worker contributions to Federal Employees Retirement System benefits, phased in over six years.
By September, none of the 19 small agencies that were targeted for elimination in the fiscal 2018 budget proposal appeared to be at risk of actually having their funding zeroed out, and unions have been vocal about rolling back proposed cuts at larger agencies. After Labor Day, AFGE organized a press conference at the National Press Club with environmental leaders and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., to protest the White House’s proposal to cut the agency’s workforce by 25 percent and overall budget by 31 percent.
Federal unions claimed an outright victory in August, when Trump’s first nominee for director of the Office of Personnel Management withdrew his name from consideration for the post. Union officials had excoriated George Nesterczuk over his role as one of the architects of the controversial and ill-fated National Security Personnel System, an attempt to implement a performance-based pay model at the Defense Department during the George W. Bush administration. NSPS was repealed after a court battle and allegations that it introduced discrimination into employee evaluations.
The union resurgence follows a relative lull during the Obama administration when federal employees saw scant, if any, pay raises but enjoyed the White House’s support for their fundamental right to organize and engage in union activities. Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, acknowledges that the concept of unions gaining strength under generally anti-labor Republican rule seems paradoxical.
“Whenever federal employees feel like they’re being threatened, it tends to benefit the union, because they know that we’re the entities out there fighting for federal employees,” Erwin says. “So when they’re being attacked, they know we’re the ones fighting for them.”
According to an independent Government Business Council/soundinvestments.us poll on federal workers’ opinions on collective bargaining, 44 percent of employees agree that Trump’s election has increased the importance of federal unions, compared to 34 percent who disagree with that notion. Among those who identified as union members, 71 percent agree they have increased in importance.
Source: GBC/soundinvestments.us survey
The Rise of Federal Employee Unions
Collective bargaining for federal workers operates differently from that conducted by labor organizations representing private sector employees. Federal employee unions cannot negotiate on compensation, although they can lobby Congress on that issue, and workers cannot go on strike. Additionally, federal unions cannot compel employees to pay dues, and they are obligated to represent all employees within their bargaining units, regardless of whether they are dues-paying members.
The road to securing the rights that federal unions do have—negotiation over a variety of workplace conditions and issues, as well as due process rights in disciplinary matters—was a long one.
In the 19th century, the spoils system allowed presidents to systematically replace large swathes of the federal workforce with partisans. Following the Civil War, President Ulysses S. Grant was the first to push back against the longstanding practice of patronage appointments, eventually leading to the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883 under President Chester Arthur. The law established the U.S. Civil Service Commission and put an end to the spoils system.
As the labor movement began in the private sector in the early 20th century, a similar move happened in the federal bureaucracy. The National Federation of Federal Employees was founded in 1917, and it was followed by the American Federation of Government Employees in 1932 and the National Treasury Employees Union in 1938.
Although private sector unions gained legal rights in 1935, it wasn’t until President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988 that federal workers were afforded some of the same protections. Passage of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act and Federal Labor Relations Act secured for unions many of the additional rights they have today, and federal labor representatives cite that law as one of their greatest achievements.
AFGE President J. David Cox says that given the partisanship that often surrounds labor issues, he counts among federal unions’ successes both improvements to worker conditions and preservation of existing protections. Democratic and union efforts to block President Reagan from reducing federal spending on pensions, are one example.
“AFGE worked very hard [in the development of the Federal Employees Retirement System] to get the defined portion, as well as [the Thrift Savings Plan], plus Social Security rounding out pretty much a comparable retirement program [to existing benefits],” Cox said. “Sometimes it’s like moving an ocean with an eyedropper, but we have been coming along. Certainly we’re working [now] on getting back to a little bit better [cost of living adjustments] for federal employees, but most of all, through all of this the American people continue to be served.”
Since the 1990s, federal unions—and organized labor more broadly—have waned in influence and public perception. The decline in domestic manufacturing has led to a steep drop off in union participation in the private sector, and Republicans in state legislatures and governors’ mansions have successfully implemented right-to-work legislation in a number of states, which prohibits unionized workplaces from compelling employees to join the union or pay dues.
Still more recently, public sector unions on the state and local level have been under siege. Republican Gov. Chris Christie in 2015 compared New Jersey’s teachers’ union to organized crime and said the labor group “deserves a punch in the face.”
Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin in 2011 successfully crippled public sector unions in his state with the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, which significantly increased employees’ contributions to their pensions and health insurance, ended their ability to negotiate over working conditions and required public unions to take annual votes to recertify themselves.
Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wis., right, winks after introducing GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally on Nov. 1, 2016, in Eau Claire, Wis. (AP Photo by Evan Vucci)
Vice President Mike Pence reportedly consulted Walker in January to explore how Act 10, which also prohibited state agencies from collecting dues on behalf of unions, could be implemented on the federal level.
“It’s something they’re interested in,” Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It’s certainly something we’re willing to offer our assistance on, particularly if it helps improve not just the nation, but in turn helps improve the ability to be better stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars here in Wisconsin.”
On Capitol Hill, House Republicans have to varying degrees sought to portray federal employees as overcompensated and their unions as bad faith actors. In April, then-House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, cited a controversial Congressional Budget Office report comparing civil servants’ compensation with private sector counterparts as evidence that they are treated too generously. At the time, AFGE Legislative Director Jacque Simon argued the report was based on a flawed methodology, and did not adequately account for the wide range in occupations in the federal government, as well as employees’ geographic locations and gender and racial demographics.
Earlier this year, unions fought unsuccessfully against a bill that makes it easier to fire, demote or discipline employees. The Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act was signed into law in June. Although the legislation was more employee-friendly than previous efforts to reform VA disciplinary processes, AFGE’s Cox described it at the time as “bad government” and an erosion of employees’ due process rights.
Some GOP lawmakers are looking to strip or curb union representatives’ rights to “official time,” whereby union representatives are compensated for time spent establishing workforce rules and supporting employees facing disciplinary action. One bill (H.R.1293), introduced by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., would require OPM to detail the total amount of official time granted to employees governmentwide, the amount of official time used per employee and the types of activities for which official time was granted.
Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., introduced a bill (H.R.1364) that would prevent federal employees who spend more than 80 percent of their day on official time from counting that toward their retirement benefits. And it would make them ineligible for agency bonuses.
Union officials argue that lawmakers have built up a strawman of official time, and that the practice is both necessary and beneficial for agencies to function smoothly, allowing them to work constructively to improve workplace conditions and efficiency.
A lot of guys who come up with bills to kill official time have no idea what actually gets accomplished on official time.
carl dahms, afge local president
“This is another misconception,” says Carl Dahms, an AFGE local president who works in the Defense Department at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. “At Tinker, we have the Voluntary Protection Program from a partnership with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and that’s all done on official time.” VPP is an OSHA initiative that encourages labor and management to collaborate on preventative measures to avoid injuries, illnesses and other hazards in the workplace.
“Our program has been outstanding: we’ve driven down lost time and days away dramatically, we’ve saved millions and millions for the Air Force,” Dahms says. “A lot of guys who come up with bills to kill official time have no idea what actually gets accomplished on official time.”
Kimberly Kraynak-Lambert is the AFGE Local 332 president and an employee of the Transportation Security Administration. Since the TSA does not have Title 5 protections like most of the federal civilian workforce, she must ask her supervisor whenever she intends to use official time.
“I have to put in for official time a day ahead of time and tell them what I’ll be doing, like if I need to be working on a case, gather information for a case or meet someone in person,” she explains. “TSA holds all the cards . . . they can deny me. It’s a lot harder for us.”
As a result, Kraynak-Lambert says she frequently does union work on her own time, and it can be “exhausting.” The additional time investment needed, combined with TSA’s reduced bargaining capacity depresses employees’ engagement with union issues, she says.
“If we were treated like any other federal agency, we’d have more people involved, they could see that we’re making changes,” she says. “It just feels like we’re running up hill and we’re not getting anywhere.”
Changing Internal and Public Perceptions
Union leaders say fighting what they see as unfair characterizations of their work is a constant struggle, both with the public and sometimes even with the employees they represent.
“It actually is very difficult. It’s one of the biggest challenges we face as federal employee unions, to continually demonstrate that the protections we help provide are beneficial to the functioning of federal agencies and good for the American people,” Erwin says. “The truth is, there are these stories [of feds committing malfeasance]. But the data do not support the anecdotal stories that you hear, that there are a lot of problem federal employees out there.”
It’s one of the biggest challenges we face as federal employee unions, to continually demonstrate that the protections we help provide are beneficial to the functioning of federal agencies and good for the American people.
randy erwin, president of the national federation of federal employees
NTEU President Tony Reardon says he constantly stresses the importance of educating both members and the public about the good and nonpartisan work completed by federal employees and union representatives.
“You’ve already heard me say on several occasions—I’ve mentioned nonpartisan,” Reardon emphasizes. “Federal employees are just trying to do the work. We can’t legally on work-time support any political candidate or anything like that. What we really try to do is tell our story and spend a lot of time educating people and congressional leaders about what it is that we do and what these federal employees are all about.”
The poll by GBC and soundinvestments.us, conducted in August, shows that unions are still a fraught issue for federal employees. The survey captured the opinions of 1,336 self-identified federal workers, of which 398 are union members and 657 are managers.
Source: GBC/soundinvestments.us survey
While 74 percent of union members said they believe official time is necessary for representatives to perform essential duties, 52 percent of managers said the practice is a waste of taxpayer money. Among managers, only 33 percent of respondents agree unions are more important as a result of Trump’s election, compared with 71 percent of union members.
Even among union members, there is disagreement on the issues unions should take up and how well federal labor groups are representing workers’ interests. According to the poll, for instance, federal employees are mostly split on questions of civil service reform. Forty percent of respondents were satisfied with the government’s current compensation structure, while 36 percent were not satisfied with the current system. Forty percent of respondents supported moving toward a performance-based pay system, compared with 33 percent who were opposed.
Source: GBC/soundinvestments.us survey
An employee of the Securities and Exchange Commission expressed characteristic ambivalence about the local bargaining unit’s effectiveness. “I work for the SEC and the compensation package is terrific,” the respondent wrote. “[Our] union representation is very weak when it comes to advocating on behalf of individual employees, even when issues are glaringly obvious.”
But a U.S. Geological Survey employee wrote in response to an open-ended survey question that the mere existence of unions helps hold managers accountable for their treatment of employees.
“Having a union puts another level of visibility on management’s actions,” he said. “Government performance is not graded by profitability like private industry, and so poor management can be hidden. …A union provides the visibility that makes bad management accountable and empowers employees to point out inequities."
Having a union puts another level of visibility on management’s actions,” he said. “Government performance is not graded by profitability like private industry, and so poor management can be hidden.
u.s. geological survey employee
There are diverse opinions within the same unions, too. AFGE’s Cox says that he must walk a line between bargaining units with views at almost the opposite ends of the political spectrum, like representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and more conservative-leaning groups such as the National Border Patrol Council, which endorsed Trump during the presidential campaign.
“What motivates us is that these people believe so much in the mission of the agencies they work for,” Cox says. “So what it boils down to is the only way we have good people in those agencies is to pay them decent wages, protect their due process rights, health insurance and retirement.”
National Border Patrol Council spokesman Chris Cabrera acknowledges the differences his union has with the AFGE umbrella organization, describing his group as “not your typical union.”
President Trump meets with CBP officers and Border Patrol agents in Yuma, Arizona, on Aug. 22, 2017. (CBP Photo by Jetta Disco)
“We don’t fall in lockstep with our parent union—we do what’s best for our members,” he says. “We’re not so much concerned if you give us a different type of chair. We’re working to ensure we have safe working conditions, body armor, and what happens in use-of-force situations.”
While many federal unions are focused on fighting proposed cuts to federal employees’ retirement, the border patrol union’s biggest concern at the moment is making sure U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s hiring surge is successful.
We don’t fall in lockstep with our parent union—we do what’s best for our members.
chris cabrera, national border patrol council spokesman
Taking the Long View
While most federal employee union officials’ immediate focus is protecting members’ jobs and benefits during the Trump administration, they say they are also thinking about how to be successful organizers and advocates for federal employees regardless of which political party is in the White House.
“Because membership is not obligatory—everybody chooses to be a member—it makes us constantly self-examine, and encourages the union to have some very positive business behaviors,” Erwin says. “We constantly have to demonstrate our value to our members, and demonstrate the value we provide them.”
For NTEU’s Reardon, it’s about showing employees the added benefits that come with being a dues-paying member.
“When the president signed the executive order to make the government more efficient through getting rid of employees, the reorganization plan, we went out to chapter leaders and members and said: We want to know what are the really substantive things that we should be telling these agencies that they can do so they can actually be more efficient,” he says. “And we went to every single agency and then we put together a report for all of the agencies. It’s that level of engagement, that opportunity to really speak to the work that these folks do on a daily basis to make government more efficient, where the public gets the final benefit, that wasn’t an opportunity to non-dues paying members.”
Robert Tobias, former president of NTEU and at distinguished practitioner in residence at American University’s School of Public Affairs, says giving employees a stake in the improvement of government operations is key to making them lifelong union members.
“I think there are two reasons people join a union,” Tobias says. “One: they’re buying insurance, and this is a period of people joining to buy insurance. The other reason is that they have an opportunity to participate effectively in solving problems in their workplaces. That was true during the Clinton administration, and less true—but certainly more true than now—with the Obama administration.”
The challenge unions will face once the immediate threats of the Trump era subside is converting “insurance” members to lifelong members. “You just make the case [that unions are valuable]. You prove it,” Tobias says.“You create communities and you create opportunities. If you create reports and recommendations that are implemented, people look at their work and they say, ‘Damn, I got to participate in something larger than myself.’”