Proposals Emerging to Restrict Power and Influence of Federal Employee Unions

Federal employee unions have become a target in the presidential campaign, and one candidate is proposing to eliminate the ability of federal employees to join unions. Here is a summary of the proposals and how much federal employee unions have contributed to politicians.

It is way too early to know who will be the candidates for president in the general election in November 2016. But, without a doubt, there are some interesting proposals surfacing that would impact the federal workforce in some way that could see the light of day depending on which candidates emerge as the strongest for each major party.

Over the past two decades, federal employee unions have become more visible and active in national politics—supporting Democrats in the vast majority of cases—so it is not a big surprise to see proposals emerging from Republicans that would restrict their influence.

Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin and currently campaigning to be the Republican nominee for president, is proposing changes that would directly impact federal employee unions in some way.

While some of the proposals could be enacted through a presidential executive order, others would require an act of Congress or changes in federal regulations.

Here is a summary of what Walker is proposing:

  • The most direct proposal a President Walker would implement would be to make it illegal for federal workers to form unions. This would require changing the federal labor relations statute that became effective in 1978 under President Jimmy Carter. That statute gives federal unions the right to represent federal employees and to negotiate conditions of employment that impact them.  Candidate Walker said he is in favor of this change because “big-government unions should have no place in the federal workplace.”
  • Require federal employee unions to disclose and certify the portion of dues used for political activity and prohibit withholding that amount. As noted in his policy paper:

    “Using the federal payroll system to withhold dues used for a union’s political spending runs counter to the law that establishes a separation between federal government resources and union political activity.

    On Day One of our administration, I will require federal employee unions to disclose and certify the portion of dues used for political activity and prohibit withholding for that amount. The federal government should not be in the business of serving as dues collector for big-government special interests.”

  • Prohibit union organizers from having access to employees’ personal information and require union recertification votes “on a periodic basis.”
  • Require online disclosure of union expenditures, including total pay of union officers, additional reporting for local affiliates of government employee unions and more conflict-of-interest reporting requirements.
  • Change federal law to ensure unions can’t fire, discriminate or otherwise retaliate against a whistleblower who reports wrongdoing.
  • Require online disclosure of union expenditures, including total pay of union officers, additional reporting for local affiliates of government employee unions and more conflict-of-interest reporting requirements.

Here is a quote from Governor Walker on the issue of unions representing federal employees:

“As president, I would stop that influence cold by eliminating federal government unions and returning power back to where it belongs: in the hands of hardworking taxpayers.

This idea is not new. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of America’s most revered liberals, realized just how counter-intuitive it is to allow union bosses to advocate against the best interests of the government. Union bargaining, Roosevelt said, ‘cannot be transplanted into the public service’….Consider the effect on the more than 600,000 veterans who faced delays for needed medical care at the Department of Veterans Affairs while more than 250 VA employees—including nurses, pharmacists, and rehabilitation experts—worked 100 percent official time for the big-government union bosses.”

Federal employee unions have actually been around for some time. President Kennedy issued an executive order in January 1962 giving federal employees the right to join or form a union. A second executive order was issued by President Nixon that became effective in January 1970 that expanded the federal labor relations program.

Federal employee unions pressed for making the federal labor relations program a statutory program and were successful with passage of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. In large part, the unions wanted to make it more difficult for future presidents to abolish the federal labor relations program which would have been much easier if it existed solely as the result of executive orders. The stated purpose of the program is to create a more efficient and effective government.

According to federal labor relations expert Bob Gilson, a frequent author at “Minimizing union subsidies such as official time, and provision of virtually all overhead that would otherwise cost a fair amount of money, would have a major impact on union power and influence in Agency affairs.”

Federal employee unions are not major contributors to political campaigns—at least not with direct political contributions. While a number of unions appear in the list of the top 100 organization contributors to political campaigns over the past few years, only two federal employee unions appear on the list. The National Association of Air Traffic Controllers (NATCA), which has contributed $21,482,054. 82% of that money went to Democratic candidates. Moreover, NATCA is different from other federal employee unions in a number of ways and has become one of the most successful federal unions since the original union for air traffic controllers (PATCO) was disbanded by President Reagan after they went on a strike.

The American Postal Workers Union is also on the list as having contributed $20,954,452 over past election cycles. 97% of their donations went to Democrats.

Two of the largest and best known federal employee unions are the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) and the American Federation of Government Employees. NTEU is listed as having contributed $6,277,247 since 1990. The union spent $644,250 in the 2014 election cycle. $525,550 was donated to Democrats running for Congress and $24,500 donated to Republicans.

AFGE is recorded as having contributed $5,142,121 in 2014 alone and a total of $13,339,734 since 1990. In 2014, AFGE contributed $885,275 to Democratic candidates and $57,250 to Republicans.

The largest government contribution to federal employee unions is probably expenditures on “official time.” This phrase refers to paying a federal employee’s salary while working on behalf of a union.

Exact figures are probably not possible to determine. But, according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), in fiscal year 2012, the number of hours spent on federal employees representing unions (“official time”) is up to 3,439,499 at a cost of $157,196,468 for salaries and benefits. The number of hours used increased by 545,527 since 2009.

This practice would clearly end if a President Walker were in office and the House and Senate remained under Republican control. In other words, federal employee unions are not in any immediate danger of losing this significant financial perk from Uncle Sam.

Obviously, Governor Walker is a long way from becoming president and currently not a major contender for the Republican nomination according to recent polls. Whether his ideas on this issue gain traction with other candidates and have any significant chance of enactment will be determined in the current election cycle to choose our next president.

Walker’s Union Proposal

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