Restricting Federal Unions and Firing Poor Performers

New executive orders will restrict government financial support of unions and make it easy to fire poor performing employees.

President Trump has signed three executive orders with significant changes for the federal government’s federal employees and union representatives.

The use of “official time” has been under attack for some time. While some more restrictive items have not made it through Congress, the new executive orders place significant restrictions on how unions will operate in the federal environment. Here are some of the major changes.

New Restrictions on Federal Employee Unions

  • Under the new executive orders, unions will be charged rent for federal office space and will not be reimbursed for travel expenses or for hours spent appealing worker firings.
  • All federal employees will be ordered to spend 75 percent of their time doing the work for which they were hired as a federal employee.
  • Federal agencies will be required to publicly post union contracts in an online repository.
  • Agencies will be encouraged to conclude negotiations with federal employee unions in less than a year.
  • The use of official time will be severely restricted. Official time is the system under which federal employees are paid salary and benefits working on behalf of the union rather than performing other work. Federal employees will not be allowed to spend no more that 25 percent of their time on union or other non-agency business.
  • Unions will be charged rent for using space in federal buildings.
  • The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) recently reported the federal government spent almost $175 million paying employees working on “official time” in 2016. Testimony in Congress this week indicated that actual figure may be much higher than $175 million.

Making It Easier to Fire Federal Workers

  • The new orders will impact how long federal workers have to improve their performance after receiving a bad review. The time to improve will be reduced from 120 days to 30 days.
  • Agencies will be encouraged to remove (fire) poor performers rather than suspending them.

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

The changes outlined in the executive orders are not a big surprise. There are likely to be more actions taken in the near future through executive orders or through legislation. Obviously, executive orders are faster than passing a law and, as we have seen in recent administrations, they can be issued without the usual give and take that occurs in Congress in crafting new legislation. (See, for example, First Steps in Changing Federal HR.)

With regard to the proposed changes that will impact how unions operate in the federal government, there has been plenty of news about how much unions cost the taxpayer and the negative impact the use of official time may have on productivity in agencies.

These executive orders are the result of deliberations within the administration on how to rein in the cost and influence of federal employee unions.

Union Reaction

It is not surprising that federal employee unions prefer the existing labor relations system to the changes that are proposed. As one example, according to the American Federation of Government Employees in responding to criticism of how and how much official time is used:

Official time reduces employee turnover, improves customer service, prevents costly litigation, and leads to quicker and more efficient implementation of agency initiatives. The important services that these federal employees provide the American public are evidence that there is too much at stake to weaken or eliminate the current system of structured communication and collaboration between federal employees and management.

Impact on Agencies

There is little doubt that these new executive orders will have an impact on federal agencies. While the full text of these orders have not been made public at the time of this writing, agencies will move out to implement the new requirements. But, despite the probable optimism of some in the administration, actual implementation will take time.

Here is why. As a practical matter, there is fairly routine contract language in federal collective bargaining agreements that delineate the perks received by federal unions. This often includes how much official time can be used and the equipment and space to be provided to unions.

Presumably, these provisions will have to be negotiated in order for them to take effect. There is likely to be litigation on these and related issues if or when agencies move out to implement the new executive orders. That will not happen quickly.

There may also be language in agreements specifying how much time an employee will have to demonstrate improvement in performance before further action is taken. Provisions on this topic may also require bargaining to change the provisions.

In all likelihood, unions will delay as long as possible while agencies will push for quicker action. The likely result is that the Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP) will be asked to resolve these disagreements as a result of bargaining. As a result of the executive orders, cases may move to the FSIP much quicker than is usually the case.


This is an interesting time for federal employees and for federal unions.

The actions that will have a negative impact taken by an administration which is routinely targeted for criticism by unions before, during and after elections is not a surprise. The cause and effect of their actions will likely be ignored in press releases and new items.

Federal employees should be aware of how politics may impact their pay and benefits. Some of the changes being proposed may impact career choices and retirement decisions.

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