Even as Federal-employee unions celebrated a big win in their battle with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Veteran Affairs sought to implement President Trump’s anti-union executive orders that a District Court judge ruled were illegal last year.
Since Mr. Trump took office, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union have had to wage a two-front battle in the courts and with oversight agencies like the Federal Labor Relations Authority that have been stacked with his anti-labor nominees.
Last month an arbitrator ruled in favor of the NTEU, finding that the HHS had violated the Federal labor-management-relations statute.
“The Agency committed an unfair labor practice by bargaining in bad faith,” wrote Robert A. Creo in his 97-page opinion issued Sept. 30. He ordered it to resolve the dispute before a Nov. 19 court hearing.
The decision cited the agency for not showing up for scheduled negotiation sessions, imposing unilateral ground rules for the talks, and insisting that longstanding provisions won through collective bargaining should be shelved.
Mr. Creo noted that HHS’s tactics included seeking a “premature intervention from the Federal Services Impasses Panel.”
HHS has said that its actions were driven by its pursuit of three goals: “reduce costs, reduce administrative burdens, and simplify the contract agencywide.”
Looking for Sincerity
Following the ruling, NTEU President Tony Reardon asked HHS Secretary Alex Azar for serious negotiations.
“This decision is an opportunity to reset our negotiations and for HHS to meet us again at the bargaining table with a sincere desire to reach agreement on a contract, as required by law,” Mr. Reardon wrote. “It is unfortunate that you refused to meet with me and that you ignored the voices of thousands of your employees who signed a petition asking for your respect.”
This was not an isolated situation: Federal unions have complained that the Trump Administration has precipitously moved to get impasses declared to short-circuit collective bargaining and impose terms on the workforce.
In May 2018, Mr. Trump issued a series of executive orders meant to dramatically reduce the presence of unions in the Federal workplace by targeting release time, which permits union officials, who are also Federal employees, to represent their co-workers.
Make Firing Easier
The orders called for “making procedural changes to…streamline the removal of poor performers” in Federal employment as a way of “strengthening the merit system.” The White House estimated the changes would save taxpayers at least $100 million a year when fully implemented.
Three months later, a Federal judge ruled that the orders violated the U.S. Constitution and laws passed by Congress by attempting to deny more than two million workers their legal right to union representation.
But in a major setback for the unions this July, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the ruling, saying the lower court lacked jurisdiction.
Justice Thomas Griffith wrote, “The unions must parse their claims through the scheme established by the [Federal Service Labor-Management Relations] Statute, which provides for administrative review by the [Federal Labor Relations Authority] followed by judicial review in the court of appeals.”
DVA Turns Up Heat
On Oct. 4 the Department of Veteran Affairs wrote the AFGE that it was implementing four of the executive orders, including provisions to “streamline” employee-removal procedures, force the union out of government-provided office space and parking spaces and end access to the department’s information-technology services.
“While the U.S. Court of Appeals has issued its mandate lifting the U.S. District Court’s injunction in our lawsuit, the executive orders themselves clearly state that they do not abrogate existing collective-bargaining agreements,” wrote AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. “Any attempts by agencies to enforce these provisions outside of the collective-bargaining process will be met with immediate legal challenge by the union. The District Court determined that these executive orders are illegal, and the Appeals Court’s jurisdictional ruling does not change that.”
He continued, “We remain concerned that the administration’s intent is not to improve service delivery to our nation’s veterans or taxpayers, but rather to remove unions from the worksite and make it harder for our members to report mismanagement or other abuses that affect veterans’ care. The best way to improve services to our veterans is to fill the nearly 50,000 vacant positions across the VA—not by taking away rights and protections for their caregivers.”
Hit ‘Boundless Hostility’
The unions have gained support from Congress through legal provisions in the Appropriations Bill that funds the government that specifically protect collective bargaining.
Last month, 219 members of Congress wrote to protest the Trump Administration’s “boundless hostility to Federal employee rights” which had resulted in the FLRA and FSIP “rubber-stamping the most punitive, destructive and extreme interpretations” of the laws covering Federal workers.
“This is the first time in four decades that Federal unions have had to come to Congress to ask for protection of the institution of fair collective bargaining, including their ability to collect union dues and obtain adequate amounts of official time to carry out legally-required representational duties,” the slender majority of House members stated.
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