Unions vow to continue fighting White House moves to undermine workers

By on 30/06/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
The publication of a 2017 memo has revealed the origin of many of president Trump’s controversial attempts to reduce worker rights. (Photo by Michael Vadon).

White House attempts to undermine federal employee rights and union power are wasting government resources and have made it harder to protect worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE).

NFFE was responding to the publication of a 2017 memo which revealed the origin of many of president Donald Trump’s controversial attempts to reduce worker rights. The memo was written by James Sherk, who at the time was labour policy advisor on the Domestic Policy Council, and is now special assistant to the president for domestic policy.

According to the memo, Sherk asked government lawyers to examine whether the president had the constitutional power to dismiss whoever he pleased in government. Sherk said that there were legal arguments that the president held this authority inherently, and that civil service legislation and union contracts impeding that authority are unconstitutional.

“If so, the president could issue an executive order outlining a streamlined new process for dismissing federal employees. This would facilitate the swift removal of poor performers,” the memo states.

The memo also outlines proposals that have since been carried forward in executive orders by the administration, such as limiting the issues unions can negotiate with federal agencies, encouraging agencies to dismiss poor performers, and limiting union employees’ right to use time during the working day to perform union duties.

The document reveals Sherk’s justification for weakening union power. He says that since unions do not stand for election, workers lack the ability to hold unions to account. He also wanted Trump to limit unions’ ability to use membership fees for political purposes. Ninety-nine per cent of union donations in the 2016 presidential race went to Democrats, he noted.

“Architect of assault”

Jeff Friday, general counsel of the NFFE, said that it was clear that Sherk had been the architect of the administration’s assault on federal workers rights and on unions.

Workers have been protected in law against arbitrary firings suggested in the memo since 1883, he said. The Trump executive orders, which unions are still fighting following a court defeat last year, was illegal, and had spawned litigation that would continue for years, he said.

“The result will be a lot of government resources wasted, far more than would have been used in labour relations absent these attacks,” he said.

However, he acknowledged that the administration had made it more difficult to represent workers in the short run. “This is especially unfortunate because the pandemic of 2020 has made worker safety concerns more critical than ever,” he said.

Unions were remaining vigilant to the threat of further attacks in the run up to the presidential election in November, he said.

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) said that federal employees “were well aware of the forces within the administration that were determined to undermine the non-partisan, merit-based civil service”, and that it would continue to fight such proposals.

OPM merger fears

Meanwhile, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), has expressed concern at Trump administration moves to go ahead with a plan to merge the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) with the General Services Administration (GSA) and transfer key policy setting functions to the White House. The GSA leases real estate and buys supplies for federal agencies.

AFGE said that a merger would politicise the workforce and reintroduce a system in which decisions on hiring, firing, and compensation were based on political connections rather than merit. The merger was proposed last year, but Congress prohibited it.

According to AFGE, the administration is now trying to circumvent the law by outsourcing OPM to other agencies, in particular GSA, by drawing up agreements with those agencies to provide services such as financial management, IT, and facilities management.

It has also emerged that last year, a senior Justice Department official said that the plan to dismantle OPM was unlawful.

According to nonpartisan watchdog, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, Steve Engel, told senior administration lawyers that the White House plan was illegal in April 2019. 

However, this opinion was never shared with a House oversight panel that subsequently held two hearings on the proposal, it claims.

Bulwark against cronies

AFGE president Everett Kelley said that the US government was “intent on abolishing the career civil service”, which acted as a bulwark against “cronies” who staff political levels of government and dispense favours to Trump’s supporters.

“What better way to make sure that federal employees who perform their work on the basis of facts and the law give way to the politics of the administration and its friends than to destroy the OPM, the agency that is supposed to ensure that a nonpartisan civil service continues regardless of which party controls the White House,” he said.  

AFGE is asking Congress to conduct “robust oversight” of the administration’s efforts to abolish OPM in defiance of the 2019 legal opinion. 

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.

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