Trump curbs federal staff protections and union powers

By on 01/06/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
US President Donald Trump has signed three "executive orders [that] make it easier for agencies to remove poor-performing employees". (Image courtesy: Michael Vadon).

US president Donald Trump has signed three executive orders that curb the power of civil service unions and make it easier to sack under-performing federal employees.

The executive orders, which were announced last week shortly before the Memorial public holiday, are Trump’s first formal step towards fulfilling a campaign promise to shrink the federal bureaucracy, following a de facto hiring freeze and unfilled vacancies during his first year in office.

“Today, the president is fulfilling his promise to promote more efficient government by reforming civil service rules,” Andrew Bremberg, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said at a press briefing, as reported by the Washington Times.

“These executive orders make it easier for agencies to remove poor-performing employees and ensure that tax-payer dollars are more efficiently used.”

Unions squeezed

The orders ban federal employees from spending more than 25% of their working hours on union business, and require federal agencies to renegotiate contracts with civil service unions to cut the average amount of “tax-payer funded union time” by two thirds.

US federal employees who are union representatives have been allowed to conduct union business during working hours for the past 40 years, under a concession introduced in the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act.

The orders create a federal Labor Relations Working Group to handle negotiations with unions; encourage agencies to conclude such negotiations within a year; and require them to start charging unions for space in federal buildings that is currently provided free of charge.

Sacking streamlined

They also compel managers to take more aggressive action to sack employees who have been performing poorly or engaged in misconduct by reducing a last-chance grace period for performance to be improved from 120 days to one month, the Washington Post reported.

Agencies are required to release the employee records of “poor performers” to the Office of Personnel Management for publication, so that other federal offices can review them during recruitment processes. Union contracts will also be published, in an online database.

The White House said in a statement that the moves would save tax-payers at least US$100m a year. But they met with an angry response from unions, who said the orders are part of a politically motivated attack on the merit system.

Mixed reactions

“This is more than union busting – it’s democracy busting,” said Jeffrey David Cox Senior, national president of the Association of Federal Government Employees, the largest union for US federal civil servants.

“These executive orders are a direct assault on the legal rights and protections that Congress has specifically guaranteed to the two million public-sector employees across the country who work for the federal government.”

However, the orders were applauded by leading Republicans. Oklahoma Senator James Lankford, chairman of the Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management subcommittee, said they would make the federal workforce stronger, as reported by the Washington Times.

“We have thousands of federal employees who work very hard for the nation,” he said. “It’s very important that their work is not frustrated by the poor performance of a few.”

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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