Officials at the largest federal employee union said Thursday that agencies’ recent efforts to implement a series of controversial workforce executive orders are intended to prevent them from performing duties that are required by law.
In a call with reporters, American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox said that union access to office space is integral to labor groups’ being able to meet with and represent front-line employees as required by the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act. Union leaders representing employees at the Social Security Administration, the Veterans Affairs Department and the Bureau of Prisons said management is moving to evict unions from office space, preventing them from taking documents off-site and blocking them from using official time or unpaid leave to represent workers.
“Union officials at the Social Security Administration are being stripped of access to vital tools that help us represent working people as we are required to do by law, including telephones, computers, Internet access, and even bulletin boards,” Cox said. “And as of yesterday, management has removed union access to all meeting rooms on agency property.”
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In May, President Trump signed three executive orders, currently the subject of a legal challenge, aimed at making it easier to fire federal employees and reducing the influence of unions in the federal workplace. One order focused on the practice of official time, where union employees are compensated for representational work, instructing agencies to cap it at 25 percent of an employee’s work hours and to either evict unions from on-site office space or to charge rent.
Last week, OPM published guidance for the implementation of the orders, and beginning Monday, federal unions began reporting efforts by management to remove them from the premises. Barri Sue Bryant, president of AFGE Local 2908, which represents SSA employees in Philadelphia, said eviction from agency property, combined with other management initiatives, will make it nearly impossible to represent employees.
“They want to inspect all of our files for [personally identifiable information] before we remove it from the building, and they’re considering that to include employee names and things like that, so I’m expecting a lot of trouble with trying to remove these files,” Bryant said. “In addition, they told us yesterday that they won’t allow us to use leave without pay, or only in extremely limited conditions, to do representational duties.”
“So the executive orders force us to be off duty to do representational work,” Cox said. “But now they deny us of our ability to go off duty.”
Katrina Lopez, vice president of AFGE Local 3172, which represents SSA employees in Fresno, Calif., said there are similar management efforts to prevent union officials from being able to engage in ongoing collective bargaining negotiations, circumventing a provision of the executive order that allows for official time to be used for bargaining.
“Our president of [AFGE] Council 224 was denied the right to participate on the bargaining team for contract negotiations that are supposed to start next week,” Lopez said. “And they were denied the right to attend our own convention in August, because they said, ‘You are in training.’”
Lopez said her local is trying to find a way to bring documents critical to its representational work off premises, but said the effort is still a “test case.”
“We’ve currently got a 14-day suspension case, and the local president doesn’t have any official time to do it,” she said. “We turned the case over to our legal representation fund, and I spoke with them this morning and put something in stating that they’re authorized to work on the case. But [management] providing the information is still going to be an issue.”
John Kostelnik, president of AFGE Local 3969, which represents Bureau of Prisons employees in Victorville, Calif., said the administration’s implementation of the executive order has hamstrung the agency’s ability to respond to the massive influx of detainees from the White House’s zero tolerance policy for undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.
“Their attempts to silence us are creating nothing but chaos in the prison system,” he said. “Some preparation or discussion with the union local would have eliminated a lot of the issues we’ve seen . . . A lot of these issues are the fact that we’re short staffed. We’ve been short staffed since before they came, and this has just added to that.”
The size of the medical staff at the prison is a particular problem, said Kostelnik, an issue that has been exacerbated in recent weeks.
“Since the influx, we have seen more than 40 cases of scabies, three cases of chicken pox, and one staff member has contracted scabies and taken it home,” he said. “These issues could have been avoided. We’re law enforcement officers—some of the best in the nation—and this attack on us is going to result in death, whether it be one of us, someone in the community, or detainees or inmates. And when that happens, these executive orders will have blood all over them.”