Legislation Proposes to Put Increased Restrictions on Federal Employee Unions

The “Federal Employee Rights Act” would put significant restrictions on the financial stability of federal employee unions and require a majority of employees in a bargaining unit to vote in favor of union representation.

Congressman Tom Price (R-GA) plans to introduce legislation that would make a number of changes to weaken the power of unions in the federal government.

Known as the Federal Employee Rights Act, the bill creates several procedures that would deal a blow to federal employee unions.

The most significant change put forth in the bill would likely create future financial problems for these unions. Currently, a federal employee is free to sign up to have dues withheld and the government sends money to the union under the terms of the applicable collective bargaining agreement. Once the employee signs up to have dues withheld from his paycheck, there is typically a window to withdraw that authorization at some future date. The union is assured that money will go into the union’s treasury for some period of time. Some employees who have a change of heart about paying dues may not be able to back out of these financial obligations for a year or so depending on the requirements of the bargaining agreement in effect at the agency.

That would change under the proposed legislation. The Federal Employee Rights Act, if passed into law, would prohibit union dues from being deducted from federal employees’ paychecks. No doubt, such a change would be a substantial hit into the financial stability of federal employee unions.

But there are also other substantial changes that would impact federal employee unions.

There are very few union representation elections held in the federal government where “no union” is selected as the winner of the election. To win such an election under current practice, the outcome is determined by a majority of the votes that are cast. In other words, if a majority of the employees voting vote in favor or a union (or in favor of “no union”), the union becomes the representative of all employees in the bargaining unit.

There are occasions when most employees in a bargaining unit do not vote in an election to determine whether they will be represented by a union in the future. If, as is usually the case, a union wins the election, everyone in the bargaining unit is represented whether they voted or not. Also, any agreement reached by the union applies to the entire bargaining unit.

The Federal Employee Rights Act would change this procedure. The proposed legislation would require that a majority of employees in the bargaining unit would have to vote in favor of a union for the union to become the bargaining representative instead of just winning a majority of the votes that are cast. An employee who does not vote in the election would be assumed to have voted in favor of “no union.” In short, it would be much harder for a union to win a representation election in the federal government than is currently the case.

The legislation would also make changes to how federal workers unionize. Under current law, 30% of a bargaining unit’s employees must sign a petition requesting to form a union. Price’s bill would raise that figure to 50%.

The bill would also prohibit federal employee unions from using dues for any purpose not directly related to the organization’s collective bargaining activities on behalf of the employees unless the employees authorize the union to do so in writing. Employees may also elect to withhold their personal information from unions if they make the request in writing.

The legislation would also require union elections to be conducted by secret paper ballot. That is routinely done now in in representation elections that are supervised by the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA).

The legislation would also apply to Postal Service employees.

While this bill does not appear to have a significant chance of becoming law, it is not surprising that unions are vehemently opposed to it.

In a press release from AFGE, the largest federal employee union, AFGE notes that: “This bill is being called the Federal Employee Rights Act, but don’t let the title fool you – this is a blatant attempt to strip employees of their basic workplace rights and disempower the people who care for our veterans, inspect our food, and deliver our social security checks.”

In the private sector, unions are not anywhere near the source of power they once were when America was a manufacturing nation. Millennials, who now make up the largest portion of the American workforce by age, have generally not been interested in joining unions in any significant numbers, unlike their Baby Boomer and Generation X parents, who previously joined in large numbers.

Government at all levels has become the source of strength for unions, and more than half of union members now work for state, local or federal government. Union strength in government has become an increasing source of friction at the state and local level and some states, such as Wisconsin, have become battle grounds during election season as legislatures try to cut back on the power of unions in elections.

Since we are now in a presidential election year and, as federal employee unions are already endorsing their favorite candidates for president and local offices (supporting Democrats in the vast majority of cases), we are likely to see significant pushing back against the role of unions in government.

Bills such as this one introduced by Congressman Price could threaten the role of unions in government at some future time but are unlikely to emerge as a new law with a Democrat in the White House. The reaction of federal unions against this bill is understandable as changes in the outcome of elections could easily lead to this type of bill becoming law in the future.

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