Election Consequences and Targeting Federal Employee Unions

We know that elections have consequences. With Republicans now controlling both Houses of Congress and the White House, the support of Democrats by federal employee unions is likely to result in changes in federal labor relations.

With a new administration and new priorities, there may be several changes in store for federal employee unions.

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.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said this week he has discussed with Vice President Pence how the administration can utilize his strategy for dealing with public unions. Walker gained considerable national publicity by implementing a policy in Wisconsin that substantially reduced the power of public sector unions in that state.  He believes the same strategy can work on a federal level.

Proposed Changes to Federal HR and Labor Relations

Republicans in Congress have discussed modifying collective bargaining protections for federal employees. In the federal sector, most unions cannot bargain over salaries and most benefits although there are some unions that are allowed to do so. In agencies where unions do negotiate wages, the salaries are often higher, sometimes much higher. (See Negotiating Federal Salary: How Do Negotiated Pay Levels in Agencies Compare to the Average Federal Salary?)

There is also likely to be a push in Congress to make it easier to hire and fire federal workers and to base salary levels on performance rather rather than how long they have worked for Uncle Sam. Most of these changes will require an act of Congress.

In an 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.

The changes in Wisconsin were apparently successful. Since the changes were implemented in that state, union membership in Wisconsin dropped 40 percent since the law passed. In 2016, 8 percent of Wisconsin’s public and private-sector workers were in a union.

Governor Walker’s presidential campaign never gained traction. His proposals were not discussed in a substantive way during the campaign. Federal employee unions have been vocal advocates for Democrats. They are likely seen by many Republicans as an adjunct of the Democratic party and responsible for swinging federal employee votes to their political opponents.

With the federal employee unions having a visible role in national elections, Walker’s approach in Wisconsin is likely to find support in Congress and in the White House. Proposals made in Congress under President Obama did not get taken seriously as there was little doubt Obama would veto attempts to weaken the federal unions that supported him.

Vice-President Pence, when governor of Indiana, was not hesitant to take on public employee unions.  Pay increases were given to state workers who received positive good reviews. Chances are there will be a move to implement a similar performance based system on a federal level.

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 previously proposed. It is too early to know which of these proposals are likely to move forward under the Trump 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.

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

“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)

It is too early in the Trump administration to know what proposals will be forthcoming. But, with the gradual role of unions as supporters of Democrats in Congressional and presidential elections, there will probably be significant efforts to restrict the role of unions and their power to influence elections using federal government resources.

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