Federal workers who saw their rights to collective bargaining, due process, and workplace representation eviscerated under Donald Trump have an enormous hill to climb to reclaim all they've lost.
Trump issued three union-busting executive orders on May 25, 2018, that affected some 700,000 American Federation of Government Employees members at Defense, Environment, Social Security, Veterans Affairs and more.
'There is a certain amount of trust we need to regain. Not only trust … but respect.'—Linda Ward-Smith, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1224
The damage became clear less than two years later when union members needed workplace safety measures to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19. Their right to health protections had been gutted.
Felicia Sharp, president of AFGE Local 1410, said that when the pandemic hit Defense Department management had a blunt message to union representatives: "We don't have to talk to you."
The results were predictable. "Employees have died because of the protections ripped out of their contract," David Cann, an AFGE field director, told reporters.
"The great majority of contacts have been gutted as a result of the Trump executive orders," Cann said. "We've been hamstrung by the outgoing administration to do the mission."
Workers with grievances or facing dismissal, including concerns about their risk of contracting COVID-19, found they no longer were entitled to union representation under Executive Orders 13836, 13837 and 13839. Team Trump kicked union representatives out of their government offices, increasing labor-management antagonisms rather than working to smooth them over. Individual workers found themselves alone and facing off against bosses, personnel specialists and government lawyers.
President Joe Biden revoked Trump's trio of anti-union executive orders on his second full day in office. Team Biden says that was just the first step in helping government workers get back on track.
Everett Kelley, the union's national president, said: "The last four years have been incredibly rough on our civil servants." Biden's revocation of the three Trump executive orders marked "a new day of hope — and we are glad to have our seats at the table."
The National Treasury Employees Union, which has 150,000 members, also elated. It said Biden's Jan. 22 actions "restored balance and stability to labor-management relations in the federal government by revoking a series of executive orders that had done nothing but disrupt the workplace and disrespect career civil servants."
Tony Reardon, president of the Treasury Workers union, said "This is a good day for public service because the President of the United States has declared, once again, that working for the federal government is a noble pursuit and that our government will respect your service."
Trump Era Contracts Remain
Union contracts signed under the Trump regime remain in effect. The AFGE wants to renegotiate. But agencies that spent the Trump era aggressively tuning out their employees and their union representatives aren't rushing to reestablish good communications with AFGE locals, union leaders told me.
"We have not heard from agencies that they are ready to negotiate," Cann said.
Linda Ward-Smith, president of AFGE Local 1224, believes Trump's executive orders emboldened government managers to be openly hostile to union members and dismissive of their input and concerns. "Management decided they didn't need to talk to the union," Ward-Smith said. "As a union president, I feel like I've been fighting a war for the last three years."
Ward-Smith and others worry that the damage from the anti-union Trump era may be lasting, perhaps fatal to resolving disputes without extensive litigation. The reason? Relationships that depended on trust on each side have been weakened and, in some cases, shattered in good part because Team Trump held unions in contempt despite Trump's carefully polished image as the champion of what he called the Forgotten Man.
"There is a certain amount of trust we need to regain," Ward Smith declared. "Not only trust… but respect."
Ralph De Juliis, president of the AFGE Social Security Administration Council of union locals, was blunt: "Agency leaders are being given a pass. There is no working with these people. Kick them laterally — but get them out of labor relations."
De Juliis wants both Social Security Commissioner Andrew M. Saul, whose appointment by Trump lasts into 2025, and Deputy Commissioner David F. Black replaced.
According to De Juliis, the Trump appointees are responsible for undermining employee morale, creating an anti-union environment and forcing Social Security Administration workers to accept "the worst labor agreement in a decade."
"They have no respect for SSA public servants," De Juliis said. "The management/employee relationship is terrible."
Asked about this, Mark Hinkle, a Social Security Administration spokesman, said there would be no comment.
Nicole Cantello, president of Local 704 with 430 members who work for the EPA's Region 5 headquarters in Chicago, said her member's woes are tied to Trump's attacks on that agency, especially scientists. Trump appointed the notorious climate change denier Scott Pruitt to run the agency 2017, then stripped EPA workers of their collectively bargained contract and "inserting the worst provisions from [Trump's] executive orders."
The struggle, she said, became to keep the union from collapsing. "We kept enough of the agency intact, so that when help came after four years, it could be resurrected. Biden acted quickly to right a wrong. EPA scientists can now put their full weight into battling climate change," Cantello said.
The AFGE wants the Biden White House to direct all federal agencies to "review, suspend and revoke" any actions and policies that resulted from Trump era actions. We'll watch for further Team Biden actions affecting the collective bargaining rights of federal workers