Politics in Action: Putting the Slow Squeeze on Federal Unions

The Office of Personnel Management now reports on time and money spent on behalf of federal employee representatives who receive “official time”

Labor relations in the federal government has always been a strange combination of rules and regulations taken from a variety of private and public sector experience.

Federal employees represented by a union can’t strike, for example, as employees of companies can in the private sector. And, if federal employees do go on strike, they can be legally fired. The most striking example of this policy in action was the strike by the air traffic controllers in August 1981. Within 48 hours, President Reagan fired all controllers who did not return to work. And, in case anyone missed his point, he also issued a ban in rehiring any controller who did go on strike.

There are also restrictions on the topics that can be negotiated between unions and federal agencies. While third party and court decisions gradually wore down the restrictions, unions generally cannot negotiate salaries and most benefits given to federal employees. In the private sector, these are usually the most controversial topics and the ones employees care about the most.

On the other hand, unions representing federal employees have several major advantages over their private sector counterparts. Agencies cannot try to keep a union from representing employees. During an election, most of the publicity is one-sided. And, once a union is elected, it is almost unheard of for a union to be thrown out of a federal agency.

The result is that unions represent a larger percentage of employees in the federal government than in the private sector. Unions in the private sector have been on the decline for decades and represent an ever shrinking percentage of the workforce. Public sector unions have been growing.

In addition, Uncle Sam pays the salaries and benefits of union representatives, even during contract negotiations with the agency or when the union is pursuing complaints against the agency.

In effect, the federal government doesn’t contest union representation of employees, provides salaries and benefits for a number of union representatives, and rarely tries to get rid of a union. In contrast, private companies will fight very hard to keep a union out of the workplace, including closing down a company or facility, when employees opt to be represented by a union.

So, while an argument can be made that federal employees unions have struck a pretty good deal that essentially guaranteed their continued survival while their private sector counterparts were falling by the wayside, times have changed.

As the unions embarked on a strategy of becoming increasingly aligned with one political party, and used their resources to become more influential in national elections, unions are generally no longer thought of as institutions that solely exist to represent federal employees; they also exist to help elect Democrats.

Some of the results of this strategy are painfully obvious. When the Transportation Security Agency was created, unions were excluded from representing these employees. When DHS was created, the power given to unions was severely restricted. And, when new changes were introduced in the Department of Defense, union authority was also seriously curtailed.

Another fall-out from the increasingly political nature of the unions is what the government refers to as “official time.” The term refers to time given to a union representative to work on behalf of the union, even against the best interests of the government, but continue to receive salary and benefits of his or her government position.

While the concept of official time has been used for a number of years, the government had what amounted to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. No one really knew how much time or money was spent on official time.

The money spent by government to support the unions in representing employees was part of the agreement reached in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Since no one knew how much time or money was spent on official time, there was not much controversy or publicity. No doubt, the public and press didn’t even know about the practice.

That too has now changed.

The Office of Personnel Management has issued its latest report on official time usage by federal employees on behalf of unions. The report is low-key and drafted in concise, bureaucratic language. There are no screaming headlines, calls for reform or even any obvious desire for changing the current system.

Having said that, the report is now out. We now know that Uncle Sam donated 4,758,147 hours of paid time to support federal employees unions in 2003. The total does not count time from 14 agencies that did not respond to OPM’s request for information.

The agency with the most time spent by unions was the Department of Defense where employees used 1,199,419 hours in fiscal year 2003. The second largest was the Veterans Administration with 791,188. The overall cost of this time to the government was 128,637,162.

It wasn’t until 2002 that the government began tracking official time usage and requiring annual reports. But the “don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy is clearly history.

OPM promises a more comprehensive report for 2004, which may not bode well for unions. “As OPM’s summary report makes clear, there has been a significant increase in both the number of hours of official time and the cost of such time since 1998. I believe that new measures are needed to ensure the level of accountability that the Administration and Congress insist upon and that the American people expect when it comes to taxpayer dollars.”

Roughly translated, more pressure is going to be put on agencies to make sure they know how the time is used and that there is a more uniform approval process.

What will happen with the data? Perhaps they will disappear into the bureaucracy. On the other hand, putting a spotlight on the amount spent to support federal employees unions may resurface in Congress as new legislation is being created that impacts federal employees. With the facade of unions’ political neutrality having faded into oblivion, the opportunity to use the data to further weaken federal employee unions may be too tempting to pass up when the opportunity presents itself.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47