Union Sues Trump over Anti-Worker Executive Order

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

The nation’s largest union for federal workers, the Government Employees (AFGE), formally sued the Trump administration on May 31, demanding the courts throw out one of his three anti-worker executive orders – the one banning federal payment of “official time” for federal union shop stewards.

The three anti-worker orders drew denunciations from AFGE President J. David Cox, National Federation of Federal Employees/Machinists President Randy Erwin and Treasury Employees (NTEU) President Tony Reardon. Trump issued the orders late in the afternoon of May 25, just as workers left for Memorial Day weekend.

“This is more than union-busting. This is democracy busting,” Cox said when Trump unveiled his edicts.

The AFGE suit challenges only the anti-official time order because official time is the only item in Trump’s orders that federal law actually covers, the court papers show. The AFL-CIO supports AFGE’s suit.

The Treasury Employees’ attorneys are looking at backing the suit, spokeswoman Sheila McCormick told Press Associates Union News Service. “If we have an opportunity to sue, we will,” she added.

“This president seems to think he is above the law, and we are not going to stand by while he tries to shred workers’ rights,” Cox elaborated when his union filed its court papers in U.S. District Court for D.C. early in the morning of May 31.

“This is a democracy, not a dictatorship. No president should be able to undo a law he doesn’t like through administrative fiat.”

AFGE’s suit says Trump, as well as his Office of Personnel Management and its director, Jeff Pon, “seek to impermissibly rewrite portions of the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations statute,” the law which governs boss-worker relations for the nation’s 2 million federal workers.

“In particular, this order, without congressional imprimatur” – approval – “seeks to restrict official time” union shop stewards can take to defend workers, union and non-union, against improper management decisions and discipline. AFGE’s suit also said the official time executive order violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of association.

“We will not stand by and let this administration willfully violate the Constitution to score political points,” Cox added.

Trump’s official time order, in so many words, says the stewards can protect workers only on their own time and on their own dime. Federal law mandates the government pay for official time.

“Without any justification,” the order “singles out labor organizations and their representatives for disparate, negative treatment, as opposed to individuals,” the suit says. It adds Trump went even farther, saying individual workers – but not the unions representing them – could get official time on the clock to prepare and file their own grievances.

“Congress passed these laws to guarantee workers a collective voice in resolving work-place issues and improving services they deliver to the public – whether caring for veterans, ensuring our air and water are safe, preventing illegal weapons and drugs from crossing our borders, or helping communities recover from hurricanes and other disasters,” Cox said.

Besides trashing official time, Trump’s orders would virtually gut the unions’ collective bargaining agreements and worker protections – even before the pacts undergo Trump-ordered renegotiation. Trump’s aim, outlined by administration officials, is to make firing and discipline of federal workers easy.

Cox said the three Trump orders go much farther than just firing and discipline. He slammed them as destroying constitutional due process rights for federal workers altogether. His union represents approximately 700,000 federal workers.

But because the entire government is an “open shop,” that number includes tens of thousands of “free riders” whom AFGE must, by law, defend despite the fact that they do not pay dues or payments in lieu of dues.

When instituted, Trump’s orders tell agencies that workers whom managers found below-average would have 30 days to correct their faults, and could be immediately fired, rather than just disciplined, if they failed.

Seniority would go out the window when federal agencies must lay off workers. And agencies could trade disciplinary information about a worker, allowing potential blacklisting.

Grievances and arbitrations – which unions use to defend workers – would cover fewer issues and would cover “misconduct or unacceptable performance,” Trump’s orders say. His edicts left those terms undefined. And workers could not file grievances if bosses denied them regular pay raises Congress passed, bonuses they earned, or both.

“These executive orders are a direct assault on the legal rights and protections Congress has specifically guaranteed to the 2 million public-sector employees across the country who work for the federal government,” Cox added    

"This administration seems hell-bent on replacing a civil service that works for all taxpayers with a political service that serves at its whim.”

In a press call after Trump’s original announcement, Cox added, "This is basically an attempt to make federal employees 'at will' employees so you can hire whoever voted for you and put on your bumper sticker during the last election." He also said Trump is yanking protection from whistleblowers while shielding corrupt managers who play favorites.

“The executive orders indicate an administration threatened by workers with rights,” NTEU President Reardon said. “The truth is these orders will disrupt the workplaces of every agency, add red tape and impede the quality work taxpayers expect and deserve.”

But Reardon pointed out that despite “an inflammatory and misleading” one-page summary of the orders, which Trump issued when he unveiled them, the dictates won’t take effect right now. “The collective bargaining agreements currently in place, after extensive negotiations with agency management, will remain in effect,” he said. NFFE President Erwin disagreed. He said Trump’s orders “would reduce collective bargaining to irrelevance.”

Nevertheless, “The orders are alarming in their pejorative terminology and accusatory tone that federal employees are inherently wasteful,” Reardon said. “Every frontline federal civil servant, regardless of union membership, will understandably take offense.”

Though NTEU has yet to join the lawsuit, Reardon also specifically slammed Trump’s official time order. Reardon added curbing official time, by curbing peaceful settlements of workplace problems, would actually cost the government more money.

“Once again, official time is not union time,” Reardon said. “It is where the men and women of the civil service make sure that they are treated fairly and that management is held accountable for unfair or discriminatory behavior. Resolving a dispute internally at the lowest possible level using official time saves taxpayers money by avoiding costly litigation.”

“President Trump declared war on America's civil servants,” Erwin added. “Regardless of the extremely weak arguments he gives to end a century of progress for the nation’s professional civil service, it is obvious his aim is to create a culture of fear within the federal government in order to advance a political agenda in the executive branch.” 

“By taking away the systematic safeguards that keep purely political or corrupt forces at bay, he creates the Wild West” there. “This is an assault on the American people, it is an assault on the middle class, and it is an assault on American ideals.  It is shameless.”  

Two pro-worker lawmakers, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, both D-Md., also denounced Trump’s moves – which come on top of the president’s plans to freeze federal workers’ pay, increase their pension contributions with no hike in later pension payouts and eliminate cost-of-living increases.

The orders would devastate families nationwide “by opening the door to firing individuals based on political motivations and severely undermining the right of federal employees to engage in union activities on official time,” Hoyer said.