Evan Vucci / AP

Union Leaders Report Slow Movement to Implement Biden Workforce Order

Agencies reportedly are waiting for guidance from their legal teams and OPM before taking action to repeal restrictions on collective bargaining, official time and other elements of the Trump administration’s workforce policies.

Officials at the nation’s largest federal employee union said that they have seen little progress from agencies in the days since President Biden signed an executive order rescinding Trump administration edicts on labor-management relations last week.

In a call with reporters, labor leaders across the federal government with the American Federation of Government Employees said that they are eager to get to work dismantling restrictions on official time, expanding the scope of collective bargaining and restoring both due process protections for federal workers and collaborative relations with management, but so far have been met with apprehension.

“I initiated a conversation with the head of my agency at the [Veterans Affairs Department], but currently it appears that there are still no negotiations that are going to happen until they are moved to do so,” said Linda Ward-Smith, president of AFGE Local 1224 in Las Vegas. “What that looks like, I don’t really know, but right now I still don’t have access . . . and there’s no bargaining going on at my agency.”

The Trump administration’s federal workforce orders instructed agency managers only to bargain over matters that they were required to negotiate by statute, maximizing so-called “management rights.” The orders also stripped from union employees the right to grieve their firings, in addition to other adverse personnel actions.

Ralph de Juliis, president of AFGE’s Social Security Administration Council, said he has seen a similar reluctance to move forward with the implementation of Biden’s order rescinding the previous president’s workforce policies.

“At SSA, we already sent the executive order to the agency and said that we wanted to return to the table, and Jim Julian, the associate commissioner for labor-management and employee relations, responded by saying, ‘Good point, we’ll talk about this on our February call,’” de Juliis said. “And earlier today, I sent the recent order from [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] on COVID and social distancing, and I sent it to various SSA people who had given me floor plans on how they plan to squeeze us into cubicles [when we return to the office], and I asked, ‘How are you going to redo the floor plan?’ And the answer we got back was, ‘We’re not doing anything yet, we need to wait until we’re told what we can do.”

AFGE Field Services and Education Director David Cann said these anecdotes are largely representative of what local union presidents have seen so far.

“The executive order says to get to work on this ‘as soon as is practicable,’ and that’s going to vary based on who’s in charge and the pressure they believe they’re receiving to make whole their union partners,” Cann said. “Hopefully, [the Office of Personnel Management] will issue guidance to return to the table shortly . . . Most agencies are in a holding pattern and don’t want to negotiate because they’re awaiting instruction from their legal teams. We’re not unsympathetic to that, but the fact is that people are going without access to union representation and being forced into working conditions that are unsafe.”

OPM Press Secretary Shelby Wagenseller told Government Executive that the agency “is working diligently on determining how we plan to implement the order’s provisions.”

Moving forward, Cann said that among the priorities for AFGE will be not just restoring regular labor-management relations at federal agencies and negotiating stronger COVID safety protocols, but in how the Biden administration staffs agencies that govern labor groups in the federal government, like the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

“We need increased access to the workplace, and we need to work in partnership with agencies, because that’s something that has ended completely [during the Trump administration],” Cann said. “And then the FLRA hasn’t had a general counsel during the entirety of the Trump administration, so any unfair labor practice complaint just sits on the shelf waiting, without any redress possible. And then we’ve got a panel at the Federal Service Impasses Panel that is just a grotesque parade of horribles, full of non-experts, non-attorneys, rubber stamping any anti-labor proposal that comes across our plate. We just want genuinely neutral parties to hear these cases.”

While some officials said they were “cautiously optimistic” about the possibility of repairing their relationships with the career employees tasked with negotiating with unions, others were more circumspect.

“There’s definitely a certain amount of trust that we need to regain, because during the last four years, I think I lost not only the trust but also the respect [of management] because of some of the things that our members were put through,” Ward-Smith said. “I couldn’t believe that we as people would treat one another this way. But to get back to that point, it’s all about honoring your word and doing what you say you’re going to do on both sides and holding people accountable.”

But de Juliis said that, at least at the Social Security Administration, that relationship with the current labor-management officials can never be mended. AFGE’s council of unions at the agency, along with other labor groups and advocates, have called on the Biden administration to force Commissioner Andrew Saul and Deputy Commissioner David Black to resign before their terms expire in 2025.

“[The officials] in the labor-management office have to go,” de Juliis said. “They’ve overseen the discipline of too many union officials during the pandemic, of too many employees. The trust cannot be restored . . . Employees are held accountable and held responsible, while leaders are being given a pass, and they cannot be given a pass. There’s no working with these people, so get rid of them, kick them laterally to the associate commissioner of recycling or something, but just get them out of dealing with labor relations.”

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