Role reversal: Biden rolls back Trump’s civil service directives

By on 26/01/2021
President Joe Biden has used his first days in office to reset relations with federal workers. Credit: Adam Schultz/Biden for President/Flickr

US President Joe Biden has used his first days in office to reset relations with federal professionals, reversing a number of executive orders issued by his predecessor Donald Trump that were seen by many as an attempt to politicise and undermine the civil service.

In an executive order, released last week under the title “protecting the federal workforce”, Biden revoked ‘Schedule F’ – which would have removed employment protections for all those involved in providing policy advice – and reversed the anti-union thrust of three Trump executive orders from May 2018.

“Career civil servants are the backbone of the Federal workforce, providing the expertise and experience necessary for the critical functioning of the Federal Government,” the order notes. “It is the policy of the United States to protect, empower, and rebuild the career Federal workforce.”

The move follows an earlier executive order – issued on Biden’s first day in office – that rolled back Trump’s ban on some forms of diversity awareness training.   

Schedule F

In October 2020, Trump created a new employment category for civil servants working in “confidential, policy-determining, policy-making or policy-advocating positions” called Schedule F. This removed employment protections – for example, they could be disciplined or fired without first going through performance management processes – and thus left them exposed to political pressures. The Trump order also meant that new hires could be brought in outside the civil service’s normal merit-based selection processes.

The move was widely condemned. Everett Kelley, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) union, called the reforms “the most profound undermining of the civil service in our lifetimes”. Ron Sanders, a lifelong Republican and Federal Salary Council Chair, quit his post in protest. In his resignation letter, Sanders labelled the order “a smokescreen for what is clearly an attempt to require the political loyalty of those who advise the President, or failing that, to enable their removal with little if any due process.”

Biden’s new executive order directs all heads of departments or agencies to “immediately suspend, revise, or rescind proposed actions, decisions, petitions, rules, regulations or other guidance” relating to Schedule F. The order adds: “The Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) shall immediately cease processing or granting any petitions that seek to convert positions to Schedule F or to create new positions in Schedule F.”

As Trump’s order was signed just over a week before the presidential election last Autumn, it is unclear how many federal civil servants’ employment status were altered.

Busting anti-unionism

Biden’s executive order also commits the new administration to supporting union organising and collective bargaining in federal agencies, and rescinds three Trump-era executive orders. Biden’s order says that it is policy to “encourage union organizing and collective bargaining” and that the federal government should “serve as a model employer.”

Trump’s order had limited collective bargaining within federal agencies, and created the Interagency Labor Relations Working Group to centralise aspects of the process. In a second order, Trump reduced workers’ rights to spend time on union-related activities, such as representing employees in disputes and negotiating contracts with the agencies. A third made it easier to fire federal employees deemed to be under-performing.

The new Biden order disbands the Interagency Labor Relations Working Group, and revokes the other anti-union measures. According to the administration, his executive order goes even further and instructs “agencies to bargain over permissible, non-mandatory subjects of bargaining when contracts are up for negotiation so that workers have a greater voice in their working conditions.”

The White House added: “[Biden] is also taking critical steps to protect and empower federal employees, who dedicate their careers to serving the American people. They keep us healthy, safe, and informed, and their work transcends partisan politics.”

The AFGE’s Everett Kelley said: “President Biden’s action to restore workplace rights and protections for federal employees, along with his commitment to partner with labor unions as a good governance ally, means we can hit the ground running to help his administration deliver on vital priorities for the American people.”

Minimum wage

The new executive order also includes a commitment to work towards a minimum wage of US$15 an hour for all federal employees. And it requires the director of the Office of Personnel Management to produce a report with recommendations on how to promote this agenda.  

In separate remarks, the White House extended this to contractors, saying: “President Biden is today directing his administration to start the work that would allow him to issue an Executive Order within the first 100 days that requires federal contractors to pay a $15 minimum wage and provide emergency paid leave to workers.”

Giving workers delivering tax-payer funded programmes improvements in their pay and conditions was a campaign trail commitment from Biden.

The Communications Workers of America union has highlighted pay levels as low as US$10.80 an hour for call centre workers hired to handle phone calls about Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.

About Elaine Knutt

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