White House looks to curtail DOD worker unions
- By Lia Russell
- Feb 12, 2020
A recent White House memo authorized a new policy to let the defense secretary roll back collective bargaining among civilian workers at the Department of Defense.
A Jan. 29 White House memo signed by Trump gives Secretary of Defense Mark Esper blanket authority to exclude defense agencies from collectively bargaining with workers. There are about 750,000 civilian workers at DOD. The memo was first reported by GovExec.
"When new missions emerge or existing ones evolve, the Department of Defense requires maximum flexibility to respond to threats to carry out its mission of protecting the American people," President Trump wrote in the memo, which was obtained by FCW. "Where collective bargaining is incompatible with [DOD] organizations' missions, the Department of Defense should not be forced to sacrifice its national security mission and, instead, seek relief through third parties and administrative fora."
Title V of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act contains a provision that allows the President to exclude agencies from engaging in collectively bargaining with workers via written order in some circumstances, including "an emergency situation."
Everett Kelly, national secretary of the American Federation of Government Employees, said, "Denying nearly half a million Defense Department workers the collective bargaining rights guaranteed to them by law since 1962 would be a travesty — and doing it under the guise of 'national security' would be a disgrace to the sacred oath and obligation that all federal workers make to their country."
AFGE represents DOD employees at the Defense Contracts Management Agency, the Defense Finance and Accounting Services, the Defense Logistics Agency, the Marine Corps, the Air Force and other workplaces throughout the DOD and the armed forces.
Carl Dahms, a DOD employee at Tinker Air Force Base, said the news report was the first time he and his fellow workers had learned of the memo's existence.
"It gives the department the ability to do whatever they want with us and lead to a lot of abuses," Dahms said in a Feb. 10 interview with FCW at an AFGE conference. "It will change the atmosphere drastically, because people are going to fear for everything they do. A large amount of [DOD] employees are veterans. For us, this is a continuation of our service."
The memo throws a wrench into the ongoing contract negotiations process, even though no one from the Department has approached the workers from whom the memo would strip collective bargaining rights, according to Dahms. He said it would likely discourage retention and hiring numbers would suffer.
"I absolutely think you're going to see a lot of people just step away from federal service. You're gonna see a lot of favoritism. They're going to take care of who they want to take care of, and they're going to, unfortunately, abuse the rest of us."
Dahms added that the memo came at a time when the military couldn't afford to lose any more workers.
"The most frustrating part for me is that [DOD officials] are against the very people that keep the Air Force and the Navy and the Army moving. We're not in a place right now where we can afford to have any decrease in the people that are supporting those efforts," he said.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) spoke at the AFGE conference on Monday. She promised workers that she'd make a bipartisan effort to make sure that civilian DOD
"I've not seen the memo but read that the reason cited was flexibility. Well, let me tell you: I don't accept that rationale," Collins said to applause. "Please know that I will work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to protect the rights of DOD civilian employees to engage in collective bargaining."
This article first appeared on FCW, a partner site to Defense Systems.
Lia Russell is a staff writer and associate editor at FCW covering the federal workforce. Before joining FCW, she worked as a freelance labor reporter in San Francisco for outlets such SF Weekly, The American Prospect and The Baffler. Russell graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bard College.
Contact Lia at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @LiaOffLeash.