Back to the Future: Labor Relations in Government Today

How will the new Executive Orders from the Trump administration impact labor relations in the federal government? Here is one perspective.

The Trump administration is obviously trying to get a handle on how federal employee unions function within federal agencies. The recent guidance from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) reflects this philosophy.

The actions by the administration should not be a major surprise. One would think from the numerous union press releases and lawsuits publicly expressing their angst and agitation that attempts by the administration to restrict the influence of unions in agencies and elections that these actions are a shocking development that threaten the nature and underpinnings of the American system of government.

The reality is this is politics as usual. Union officials may not have known the specific steps that would be taken when Republicans won the White House and Congress. But, with their visible and vocal support of Democrats running for office, it can’t be a surprise that the political system is pushing back to restrict taxpayer support of their activities.

While reasonable people can differ over the value of having unions representing the ostensibly politically neutral federal workforce, the significant involvement of unions in politics creates a range of issues likely to be resolved in public, including through lawsuits and executive orders.

Labor Relations Working Group

One of the recent Executive Orders establishes a labor relations working group. One purpose of this group is to propose recommendations to the President for improving the organization, structure, and functioning of labor relations programs across agencies.

The guidance from OPM to agencies on this subject reflects a philosophy that federal agencies should work together to have a consensus on how to deal with federal unions. Agencies often (usually) act independently and having a forum to construct a government-wide approach is a logical step.

This is not a new concept although has not been actively pursued for some time. OPM used to conduct meetings for an interagency advisory group on labor relations where agency representatives discussed a range of labor relations topics.

OPM used to provide information and support on labor relations issues to agencies through this interagency advisory group and was attempting to have a more unified approach to dealing with federal employee unions. That approach has not been used for some time (starting with the Clinton administration) but the pendulum is swinging back in that direction, at least for now. If federal employee unions continue to provide support for Democrats seeking office, which they are clearly doing, a different approach will likely be used by a president who is a Democrat.

Restricting Bargaining in “Permissive Topics”

Under the Trump administration, agencies are not to bargain on what the labor relations statute refers to as “permissive topics” of bargaining. Permissive topics of bargaining are as follows:

  • “…numbers, types, and grades of employees or positions assigned to any organizational subdivision, work project, or tour of duty, or on the technology, methods, and means of performing work….”

Under the Obama administration, agencies often bargained on these topics. That discretion has been revoked under the Trump administration.

Bargaining Guidelines for Agencies

Under Executive Order 13836, federal agencies are advised to negotiate labor agreements consistent with the Executive Order’s (EO) guidance.

Bargaining labor agreements in the federal government often take months or years. There is little incentive, particularly since pay is generally not negotiated for employees in agencies, to reach a quick agreement. The EO is attempting to change that approach.

Under the EO, ground rules for collective bargaining agreements should take six weeks or less to negotiate and the final agreement should only take between 4 and 6 months under those ground rules.

The logical result of this is that federal agencies will be seeking third party assistance much sooner than has been the case. It is likely unions will refuse to agree to restrictions on using agency equipment and office space. Most likely, the decision will be made by the Federal Service Impasses Panel and the decision will frequently reflect the best presentation made to this third party organization.

It is possible that this EO will speed up negotiations and also provide agreements with agencies that contain more restrictions on how unions function in agencies and how much they receive in federal subsidies.

Within the next year, the impact will be clearer. Unions will probably not like the trend as long as this one lasts. If the administration is correct it may end up being a better deal for taxpayers.

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