Right to Strike for Feds Endorsed by Bernie Sanders

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders supports giving federal employee unions the right to strike.

Unions in Federal Government

The federal government’s labor relations program has evolved considerably since 1962 when President John F. Kennedy issued an Executive Order creating a labor relations system within the federal government. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wants to dramatically change the labor relations structure within the federal government by allowing federal employees to go on strike.

Kennedy’s Executive Order was called “Employee-Management Cooperation in the Federal Sector.”

A second Order was issued by President Richard Nixon in 1969 expanding some of the original provisions and creating a more comprehensive system. The federal labor relations program was put into a legislative framework with the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 under President Jimmy Carter.

Restrictions on Federal Unions

The federal labor relations structure has always contained provisions leaving topics outside the scope of bargaining subjects available to unions and no provision was ever enacted giving federal employees the right to strike.

The Sanders proposal envisions a much stronger program and a change in the balance of power far beyond the original concept as the right to strike would provide the opportunity for significant disruption of government services within the control of a union.

Supporting the Right to Strike for Federal Workers

The Sanders plan reads: “Under current law, federal employees are not guaranteed the same labor rights as workers in the private sector. While they have the ability to unionize, they are prohibited from going on strike. Under this plan, federal workers would have the right to strike.”

The statement about the Sanders plan does not indicate whether he would favor requiring federal employees to join a union, but his plan does state he would work to eliminate legislation “that eliminates the ability of unions to collect dues from those who benefit from union contracts and activities, undermining the unions’ representation of workers.” In other words, he would favor mandatory dues payment for employees working in a union environment.  

The Sanders plan does not indicate whether he would also favor giving federal employee unions the power to negotiate over salaries for federal employees as well—a common topic leading to strikes in unionized companies but now beyond the scope of bargaining for most federal employees.

Most Famous Federal Employee Strike

In fact, the most famous strike by federal employees was over pay and benefits. On August 3, 1981, almost 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike after negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for higher pay and fewer work hours were not going along as the union had hoped.

On August 5, 1981, President Ronald Reagan took action to fire the striking federal workers. President Reagan declared a ban on rehiring of the strikers by the FAA. The FAA began accepting applications for new air-traffic controllers, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified the air traffic controller’s union (PATCO).

The strike had a significant impact on air travel. As a result of the strike, some 3,000 supervisors joined 2,000 nonstriking controllers and 900 military controllers in staffing commercial airport towers. As a result of the contingency plans, about 80 percent of flights were operating normally within a few weeks of the strike being called.

Seeking Union Support for His Campaign

The Sanders plan is designed to attract support of unions to his presidential campaign. The primary focus of the plan is designed to appeal to private sector workers and unions but the right to strike for federal employees may gain him the most publicity.

Obviously, a president cannot unilaterally eliminate the Civil Service Reform Act, so, if Bernie Sanders should be elected and bring to the White House his version of socialism to the forefront of American politics, he would have to have support of Congress. If both Houses of Congress were controlled by Democrats under a Sanders administration, there is a possibility federal employees would be given the right to strike.

If federal unions did have this option, there is certainly a possibility it would be used and could be detrimental to providing government services and damaging to the American economy. In the view of Senator Sanders, supporting the “workers of the world” philosophy he employs in his campaign is paramount. And, perhaps, his latest proposals will gain more financial and on-the-ground support of unions in his quest to become our next president.

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