Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday. Andrew Harnik/AP

Defense Chief Says He Didn’t Ask for Union Memo, Declines to Say How He Will Use New Power

Esper told lawmakers he would wait for staff recommendations before using the newly granted authority to outlaw collective bargaining among Pentagon civilian workers.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told lawmakers Wednesday that he did not request the recent memo signed by President Trump granting him the authority to ban collective bargaining for the department’s civilian workforce, but he declined to say if or how he might use his new power.

Esper appeared before the House Armed Services Committee to advocate for the Trump administration’s fiscal 2021 Defense budget request.

Last month, President Trump quietly signed a memo delegating his legal authority to exempt agencies from the law guaranteeing federal employees the right to unionize to the Defense secretary. The memo, which argued that Esper may need to abolish unions at the Pentagon because of the need for “flexibility” and suggested that national security may be “incompatible” with collective bargaining, was posted to the Federal Register last week.

At the hearing Wednesday, Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., asked Esper about how the memo came to be, and how he planned to use his newfound power.

“The president cited perceived threats to national security and the department’s flexibility to adapt to new technologies as justification for this,” Norcross said. “The DoD civilian workforce are some of the greatest employees in the world, and we know what they do day in and day out. Ultimately, our national security is bolstered by those employees . . . Do you plan on exercising this authority to provide the president to exclude Defense civilians [from collective bargaining]?”

Esper said he did not request the memo and did not know why the White House drafted it, but said he would wait for his staff to report to him on the issue before taking any action.

“It is a great workforce, and we rely on them for continuity and expertise that are critical to sustaining our military,” he said. “That [memo] issued in late January is working its way through the system right now, and so far it has not come to me with any recommendation or analysis. I know that it’s in the process, and that’s all I have right now on that.”

Norcross pressed Esper about whether there was some example of when labor-management relations hampered national security that could have prompted the crafting of the memo.

“Can you point to a time in recent history that might have been employed, because I was going back through labor history, and I didn’t see any issues,” Norcross said. “I’ve never heard about it from anybody. The folks who want to be part of your team could be potentially eliminated because of this order that apparently came out of nowhere. If you can’t think of why it might have been done in the past and I don’t know of any, how is this showing up?”

“Just because I can’t recall an issue right now doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist,” Esper said. “That’s why I think the prudent thing is to wait to see what the analysis is when it comes up from my staff, what they’re looking at, and make an assessment from there based on whatever recommendations are made.”

Norcross suggested the prospect of cutting unions of out of the Defense Department might do more to harm national security than bolster it.

“The idea of creating potential havoc [with this], when we’ve been working well together, it just seems crazy,” he said.