Federal employees who have worked for Uncle Sam for more than several years may have had the experience with signing up for union dues and finding out later that canceling that dues withholding was not quick, easy, or was a process designed to be easily understood or used by employees in a bargaining unit.
Federal employee unions represent a specific unit of federal employees approved by the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA). The bargaining unit consists of employees with some commonalities—at least they usually work in the same federal agency. The union represents all employees approved for the bargaining unit. Once a union is elected, the union is rarely, if ever, disenfranchised.
Process for Canceling Union Dues
A big difference between the federal government’s labor relations program and some state and local government systems is that federal employees are not required to join a union in order to keep a federal job. Unions sometimes refer to those who do not agree to pay union dues as “freeloaders” as the union is obligated to represent federal employees regardless of whether an employee has agreed to pay money to the union for their services.
Prior to 2020, the FLRA concluded “ ‘any such assignment (of union dues) may not be revoked for a period of [one] year’ must be interpreted to mean that authorized dues allotments may be revoked only at intervals of [one] year.”
In other words, the FLRA created a requirement that a federal employee must continue to pay dues, and the employee’s desire to cancel the routine payments could only be canceled at specific yearly intervals. It was a way for the federal government to provide financial support for federal employee unions—and unions repay these efforts by providing support for political candidates supporting policies in favor of their growth and survival.
FLRA Policy to Enable Easier Cancelation
But, in 2020, that policy changed when the FLRA issued a new policy decision.
Instead of the very limited window for an employee to cancel their payment of dues to a union, the FLRA concluded there is no legislative requirement supporting an earlier policy conclusion that “…dues assignments may be revoked only at one‑year intervals following the first year….”
Under the FLRA’s 2020 policy decision, a federal employee should be able to revoke a union dues withholding payment at any time after the first year of when the withholding has occurred. In other words, the FLRA was giving federal employees more freedom to get out of restrictions that required an employee to keep paying dues to a union.
Reaction to Policy Decision on Withholding Union Dues
Shortly after the FLRA announced its policy decision on the issue, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) issued this statement which was consistent with the reaction from others:
The Authority’s decision is just another step toward the administration’s goal of busting unions and making it even harder for rank-and-file federal employees to speak up, defend their rights, and serve the American people. This meritless decision flies in the face of decades of settled and well-reasoned legal precedent in an activist effort to divide federal employees from their unions.
Final FLRA Rule
On July 9, 2020, the FLRA issued its final rule on the issue of union dues withholding. In issuing the new rule, the FLRA Chairman at that time, Colleen Duffy Kiko, stated:
In many of the public comments we received, federal employees and agencies expressed frustration at how difficult and time-consuming the dues-revocation process had become. Because of the new rule, employees will no longer need to make their revocation decisions during confusingly defined and narrow window periods abutting their anniversary dates. The plain language of 5 U.S.C. § 7115(a) never required this state of affairs, and hard-working federal employees deserved more clarity. This regulation does not prevent any employee from voluntarily continuing their dues withholding should they so desire.
As noted above, federal employee unions viewed the policy of making it easier to cancel an agreement to continue to pay dues as a policy designed to “advance the administration’s goal of busting unions and making it even harder for rank-and-file federal employees to speak up, defend their rights, and serve the American people.”
Unions Negating FLRA Policy
The issue essentially gives federal employees more freedom to control their expenses and puts more financial restraints on federal employee unions. If an issue contrasts ensuring a union’s financial security vs. more freedom of choice for federal employees, a union will predictably opt in favor of keeping more money to support the union.
That is essentially what is happening in practice.
In guidance from AFGE on the issue of dealing with the new FLRA policy on dues withholding, the union explains how a union local should proceed to ensure federal employees will probably have to keep paying union dues to ensure a steady flow of income.
Policy Guidance From AFGE to Prevent Dues Cancelations
Here is a summary of the guidance:
- The (FLRA) Rule only applies to employees who join on or after August 10, 2020.
- For members joining on or after August 10, 2020, no member may drop as a result of this new rule any earlier than August 10, 2021.
- If you have a contract, this rule doesn’t change anything.
- If you are bargaining your contract, the Agency must bargain the procedures and appropriate arrangements regarding the new rule.
- If you are bargaining your contract, the new rule does not require any changes for employees who joined before August 10, 2020
In other words, the longer an existing contract with an agency remains in place, the longer the union can keep employees from canceling their dues payments. And, when negotiating new labor agreements, the guidance is to restrict the new policy to employees who joined later and to pay attention to “procedures and appropriate arrangements”—presumably to keep the current restrictions as restrictive as possible.