Federal Employees, Safety and Unions

Federal employee unions are highlighting their conditions that “must be met” before employees return to work. Federal employees should exercise caution though.

The coronavirus has created changes in American society that would have been unthinkable a short time ago.

No doubt, panic has set in that creates a new mindset, and people take actions that, in retrospect, may have controversial and successful or, in hindsight, may have been a very bad idea.

Limits on Union Authority in Federal Government

Here is an example.

Federal employee unions represent thousands of federal employees. In some agencies, they are an integral part of the decision-making process, particularly on human resources issues. There are legal limits on union power or authority that may come into play in extreme conditions such as those we are now experiencing.

Press Releases Issued by AFGE and NTEU

Press releases have been issued by AFGE and NTEU on safety issues and federal employees returning to work. The press releases are similar. AFGE wrote:

Responding to the administration’s guidance for actively resuming normal government operations “to the maximum extent possible,” the American Federation of Government Employees has delivered a set of preconditions that must be met before any reopening can occur.

NTEU wrote: “The National Treasury Employees Union today released the health and safety conditions that must be met before federal employees are required to return to the workplace.”

No doubt, many of the safety precautions suggested by the unions make sense. Agencies are likely to follow many of these same guidelines in any event. But federal employees should be cognizant of limits on the authority of their union if they are tempted not to return to work after being directed to do so by their employing agency.

A union cannot tell employees to refuse to return work once an agency makes a decision to have employees return to the workplace without consequences.

This has occurred before—probably before many current federal employees were born or they were still in school—and there were significant consequences for employees and their union.

A Federal Employee Strike

A federal employee union cannot “call or participate in a strike, work stoppage, or slowdown, or picketing of an agency….” If a union tells employees not to return to work or condones this action, there are likely to be significant consequences. While unusual, this is what has happened before.

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 proceeding 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 the 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 non-striking 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.

The union press releases cited above do not call for federal employees to go out on strike or to refuse to return to work. NTEU President Tony Reardon said in his union’s press release:

As long as local, state and federal public health experts agree that sheltering at home is helping to minimize the spread of coronavirus and save lives, we believe the federal government should maintain its policy of maximum telework and administrative leave to keep its workforce safe. 

AFGE wrote in its press release:

I must strongly rebuke the administration for publishing a set of guidelines that is both pre-mature and imprudent. These guidelines (issued by OMB and OPM) would, if implemented too soon, worsen the crisis, and unnecessarily expose millions of Americans to illness and potentially, to death. Human life is precious, and we must protect the health and safety of our government workforce.

What Would President Trump Do?

The unions are entitled to voice their opinions and to make specific proposals or suggestions. Depending on the situation, agencies and unions may work out an arrangement and employees will return when both parties agree it is safe to do so.

Most federal employees may agree with proposals their unions are making. Agencies may or may not follow the “conditions” the unions are attempting to impose and these agencies may direct employees to return to work over objections by a union.

When pressed, President Reagan did not hesitate to fire federal employees who were striking illegally. If federal officials decide to re-open government as soon as guidelines have been met and federal employees refuse to return to work, I do not know if President Trump would make the same decision as President Reagan made.

Federal employee unions have already been accusing President Trump of trying to break up or weaken federal unions and the unions will, as usual, primarily support Democrats running for office.

It would be reasonable to assume that if federal employees do engage in a strike, work stoppage, or slow down, or picketing of an agency, President Trump would quickly use his authority to fire the employees, decertify the union(s) behind the action as happened with PATCO in 1981, and get the government up and running as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Legal Nuances

Note that neither of the union press releases are specifically calling for a strike or work stoppage. Stating that the union’s “health and safety conditions…must be met before federal employees are required to return to the workplace” is getting close and, presumably, the lawyers for the union were involved to avoid crossing the line that would violate the labor relations statute.

Federal employees may not be aware of the nuances between the press releases and prohibitions of the labor relations statute. If tempers and other emotions leap to the forefront in a stressful situation, any federal employee should think through any decision that may result in a work stoppage. Making a decision that could result in ending a federal career is significant and should not be taken lightly.


We are going through an unusual situation. It has impacted many Americans ranging from death of friends or family members to losing a business or a job and the financial stress that results.

While we appear to be getting close to the end of the coronavirus shutdown, the denouement is likely to involve lawsuits, tension, high emotions, and possibly labor unrest. Federal employees need to look out for their safety and well-being and be knowledgeable of possible consequences if they are asked to avoid returning to work.

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