AFGE members in June protest a proposed merger of OPM and GSA.  Unions say the dues proposal would make it harder for them to represent federal workers.

AFGE members in June protest a proposed merger of OPM and GSA. Unions say the dues proposal would make it harder for them to represent federal workers. Flickr user AFGE

Trump Administration to Explore Making It Easier for Federal Employees to Cancel Union Dues

Labor officials decry the effort as a misuse of legal precedent to bust unions.

The agency tasked with overseeing labor-management relations across the federal government and the Office of Personnel Management will consider whether to change the rules governing dues collection to make it easier for members to leave their union.

The Federal Labor Relations Authority posted a request for comments in the Federal Register Friday on whether to change its policy on how agencies should collect union dues, at the behest of OPM. The agencies said they are considering making it so that federal employees can cease paying union dues at any time, provided they have been in a union for at least one year.

“Consistent with [the Supreme Court decision Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees], upon receiving an employee’s request to revoke a previously authorized union-dues assignment, an agency should process the request as soon as administratively feasible, if at least one year has passed since the employee initially authorized the union-dues assignment from the employee’s pay,” FLRA wrote.

At issue is the law governing how federal sector union dues should be collected, which states, “any such assignment [of dues] may not be revoked for a period of one year.” For decades, the government has interpreted that to mean that once a federal employee joins a union and agrees to pay dues, he or she may only elect to opt out of union dues at one-year intervals, similar to the open season period in which people elect to change their health insurance coverage.

It is unclear how OPM is interpreting the Janus decision to affect federal sector bargaining. That decision found that the use of so-called agency fees, a practice whereby state and local public sector unions were able to charge non-members for the cost of representational work, violated the First Amendment.

Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion in the case, actually touted federal sector collective bargaining, where only those who affirmatively choose to join the union pay dues and union officials are granted official time to work on representational matters, as a success story.

“The federal employment experience is illustrative,” Alito wrote. “Under federal law, a union chosen by majority vote is designated as the exclusive representative of all the employees, but federal law does not permit agency fees. Nevertheless, nearly a million federal employees—about 27% of the federal workforce—are union members.”

OPM did not respond to a request for comment regarding how Janus applies to federal collective bargaining.

Robert Tobias, director of business development for the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University and a former president of the National Treasury Employees Union, questioned the legal rationale behind the proposal.

“The Supreme Court has made it clear that the federal sector labor-management relations program fits within the confines of the Janus decision,” he said. “Therefore, there is no basis for the FLRA to alter or amend the existing status of the process for initiating dues collection and employees rescinding their decision to allow dues to be deducted from their paycheck.”

If implemented, Tobias said the proposal could have a devastating effect on federal unions’ finances and membership rolls.

“I believe that, for example, in Wisconsin when the law was changed there [ending paycheck deductions for union dues] the percentage of employees participating went from well over 90% down to around 12%,” Tobias said. “If this were to go into effect, and if federal employees followed suit like in Wisconsin, unions would be significantly less effective in representing employees in the federal sector.”

Union leaders described OPM’s proposal as a brazen effort to make it more difficult to represent federal workers.

“The Trump administration’s request for the Federal Labor Relations Authority to overturn decades of precedent is part of an all-out assault on federal employees’ collective bargaining rights,” said J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “They are throwing out our contracts, enforcing illegal executive orders, and now trying to make it harder for workers to join and stay in the union. Their ultimate goal is to destroy federal sector unions, and we will do everything in our ability to prevent that from happening.”

NTEU National President Tony Reardon described OPM and FLRA’s proposal as legally baseless.

“The Office of Personnel Management’s reliance on a recent Supreme Court decision to pursue this change is unfounded,” Reardon said. “At the federal level, unions represent all employees in the bargaining unit, but only those who choose to join the union pay dues. We do not collect dues from anyone other than the members and the timeframe for leaving the union is clear when a federal employee signs up.”

(Image via Flickr user AFGE)