Federal Employee Unions and Election Consequences

There have not been dramatic legislative changes in federal human resources and labor relations since 1978. That could change in 2017. Here are some of the more significant proposals for change.

With election results in, a new administration is forming to assume power in January. With a Republican occupying the White House and Republicans in control of both Congressional chambers, actions may be possible that were previously blocked. Some of the biggest changes may be in federal labor relations.

Role of Federal Employee Unions

Over the past two decades, federal employee unions have become more visible and active in national politics. It is not a big surprise to see proposals emerging from Republicans that would restrict their influence.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is now an adviser to president-elect Donald Trump. Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, had previously proposed that labor law modifications successfully implement in Wisconsin to restrict the power of unions be implemented on the federal level. Gingrich has recently expressed an interest in the Walker proposal.

Proposed Changes to Federal Human Resources and Labor Relations Programs

In a recent interview, Governor Walker renewed his support for making changes to the federal human resources and labor relations programs.  “It’s the work rules, the seniority, all those things. If they could tackle that in a similar way to what we did, long term it would be a major, major improvement” according to Walker.

In his campaign for president, Walker proposed a ban on collective bargaining by federal employees. He also proposed requiring unions to hold periodic votes on their status. This would enable employees to decide whether they should continue to exist as a bargaining representative.

“We must take on the big-government union bosses in Washington — just like I took them on in Wisconsin,” Walker said in a town hall meeting.

Governor Walker’s campaign never gained traction and his proposals were not discussed in a substantive way during the campaign. Some of his proposals to restrict the power of federal employee unions were already in legislation proposed in Congress. These did not make front page news or advance very far.  Assuming President Obama would veto legislation restricting the power of unions would be reasonable.  Unions generally are strong supporters of Democratic party candidates and programs.

Some of the Walker proposals could be enacted through a presidential executive order. Others would require an Act of Congress and changes to federal regulations.

Here is a summary of what Walker has proposed and topics likely to be discussed in a new administration.

  • Making it illegal for federal workers to form unions would require changing the federal labor relations statute. This law became effective in 1978. It gives federal unions the right to represent federal employees and to negotiate conditions of employment.
  • Requiring 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.”

  • Prohibiting union organizers from having access to employees’ personal information and require union recertification votes “on a periodic basis.”
  • Requiring 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.
  • Changing federal law to ensure unions can’t fire, discriminate or otherwise retaliate against a whistleblower who reports wrongdoing.
  • Requiring 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.

Walker quoted President Franklin Roosevelt on the issue of unions representing federal employees:

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 Union and Interest Group Contributions

Federal employee unions and federal employee interest groups contribute to political campaigns. Most of the contributions go to Democrats seeking office or “Outside Spending Groups.” These groups are often political action committees generally supporting Democrats. The data are provided by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Here is the rack-up of these donations during the 2016 elections as of the end of October.

Union Total Democrats Republicans Outside Spending Groups
National AFGE Headquarters $2,293,036 0 0 $2,293,036
American Federation of Govt Employees $1,945,539 91.6% 8.4% $809,118
National Rural Letter Carriers Association  $435,000  59.7%  40.3%  $0
National Treasury Employees Union  $409,932  95.9%  4.1%  $0
National Association of Postal Supervisors  $311,250  93.3%  6.7%  $0
Federal Aviation Admin Managers Association  $284,500  27.4%  72.6%  $0
National Postal Mail Handlers Union  $234,000  92.5%  7.5%  $0
National Weather Service Employees Org.  $64,500  47.4% 25.6%  $0
National Association of Postmasters  $100,580  78.9%  21.1%  $0
National Active & Retired Federal Employees Assn  $539,250 78.5%  21.5%  $0

“Official Time” and Federal Employee Unions

The largest government contribution to federal employee unions is probably paying salary and benefits of federal employees on “official time.” The term refers to the government’s practice of continuing to pay  salary and benefits while an employee works for a union.

Official time is a costly item for federal agencies and taxpayers. It is also difficult to track.

In FY 2012, OPM reported federal employees spent 3,439,499 hours on official time at a cost of $157,196,468. The Government Accountability Office later issued a report which said that nobody really knows if these figures were accurate and in fact may have been much higher than OPM reported. (See How Much Official Time Used by Federal Unions? No One Really Knows and OPM Releases Hilarious Union Official Time Report)

Proposed Changes to Federal Human Resources

It would not be surprising if legislative changes to the labor relations program also included changes in the human resources program. Proposals along these lines are to make it easier to fire a federal employee. Other proposals to change the federal system include:

  • Eliminate automatic awarding of within-grade increases
  • Combine vacation and sick leave into one plan. This would result in 16 days for workers with fewer than three years of service and up to 27 days for federal employees who have worked longer time periods.
  • Alternatively, maintain separate vacation and sick leave accounts but restrict the total leave available.
  • Reduce current vacation allowance from 13 days, 20 days, or 26 days (depending on years of service) to 10 days, 15 days, and 20 days.
  • Reduce sick leave days from 13 days to 10 with the ability to roll sick leave over from year to year.
  • Remove the government subsidy for health insurance benefits after retirement for new federal employees.
  • Transition to a new retirement system. No changes to retirement for federal employees with 25 years or more of federal service.

(See Proposed Changes to Federal HR: From Worst Case to Possible)

No one really knows what proposals will emerge in Congress or from the White House impacting federal employees. Federal employee unions will use the full extent of their lobbying power to restrict proposals. The next few months will be an interesting time. There will ultimately be some changes but most likely to be less encompassing than some of the initial proposals.

There have not yet been specific plans issued by the Trump transition team for changes such as those discussed above. In a recent call with reporters, a Trump spokesman noted that plans for a hiring freeze and other workforce policies would be announced before he takes office. There will apparently be “a number of policy and executive orders” related to the federal workforce that will be ready to go as soon as Trump assumes office.

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