Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a presidential forum at Wallace State Community College on Sunday in Selma, Ala. Warren was one of the senators who wrote the letter.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a presidential forum at Wallace State Community College on Sunday in Selma, Ala. Warren was one of the senators who wrote the letter. Butch Dill / AP

Warren, Sanders Warn Defense Chief Against Using New Collective Bargaining Authority

Democratic senators demand that Esper “commit, in writing,” not to act on his new authority to abolish unionization at the Pentagon.

A group of Democratic senators led by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., last week urged Defense Secretary Mark Esper not to use a new authority to exempt his department from federal labor law and end collective bargaining for its 750,000-person workforce.

In January, President Trump quietly signed a memo delegating his authority to exempt agencies from the law guaranteeing federal employees the right to unionize, citing the need for “flexibility” and suggesting collective bargaining may conflict with the Pentagon’s “national security mission.”

Esper told lawmakers last week that he did not request the memo giving him the power to effectively abolish unions at the Defense Department, but declined to say whether he would use the new authority. He said he is waiting for analysis and recommendations from his staff before making a decision on the issue.

In a Feb. 28 letter to Esper, Warren, Sanders and Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said they were “alarmed” that Trump had delegated the authority “to unilaterally strip labor rights” from the Defense civilian workforce. The lawmakers said they are not convinced that the president’s decision complies with federal labor law.

 “Under the [statute], the president must meet two requirements in order to exempt a federal agency or subdivision from the [law],” they wrote. “First, the president must demonstrate that ‘the agency or subdivision has a primary function [of] intelligence, counterintelligence, investigative or national security work.’ Excluding an entire department or divisions within a department from collective bargaining is incompatible with this statutory framework. Congress expressly excluded some agencies from collective bargaining, and chose to confer only limited authority on the executive branch to exclude discrete offices.”

The senators argued that the memo does not adequately provide a legal justification for expelling unions from the Defense Department.

“The president must show that the provisions of the [statute] ‘cannot be applied to that agency or subdivision in a manner consistent with national security requirements and considerations,’” they wrote. “The memo is essentially an anti-union rant, and its argument for exemption is asserted without justification or precedent and seems to be generated by an ideological desire to weaken unions rather than a concern with national security.”

The letter comes just days after a bipartisan group of senators, led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, urged Trump to rescind the memo.

Warren and her colleagues demanded that Esper commit “in writing” not to act using his new authority by March 12.

“President Trump’s decision to allow you to bust DoD workers’ unions appears to be motivated purely by an anti-union bias and will harm national security,” they wrote. “The DoD’s unionized civilian federal workforce provides key support to the DoD’s mission and the military forces that carry it out, and stripping away these workers’ rights would result in profound damage to them and to the DoD’s national security mission.”