Biden Rescinds Memo Granting Defense Secretary Authority to Ban Unions

Last year, then-President Trump granted the Defense secretary authority to strip Pentagon employees of their rights to bargain collectively, although it was never acted upon.

President Biden on Wednesday evening rescinded one of former President Trump’s more controversial, albeit unimplemented, workforce initiatives, stripping Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin of the authority to strip Pentagon employees of the right to unionize.

Last year, in a memo first reported by Government Executive, Trump delegated his authority to exempt certain national security jobs from federal labor law to the secretary of defense, citing the need for “flexibility.”

“When new missions emerge or existing ones evolve, the Department of Defense requires maximum flexibility to respond to threats to carry out its mission of protecting the American people,” the document stated. “This flexibility requires that military and civilian leadership manage their organizations to cultivate a lethal, agile force adaptive to new technologies and posture changes. Where collective bargaining is incompatible with these organizations’ missions, the Department of Defense should not be forced to sacrifice its national security mission and, instead, seek relief through third parties and administrative fora.”

The decision drew immediate and bipartisan outcry from federal employee unions and members of Congress, particularly since it appeared to follow through on a proposal from former presidential advisor James Sherk to sign an executive order “eliminating employee unions at the Defense Department on the basis of national security.”

In response to the criticism, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper told lawmakers that he never asked for the authority Trump granted him. Although he declined to say at the time whether he planned to take advantage of the new power, he ultimately never used it.

In a statement, American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley, whose union represents nearly half of the Defense Department’s roughly 700,000 civilian workers, hailed Biden’s decision.

“On behalf of the 300,000 DOD civilian employees AFGE represents, I applaud President Biden’s action to revoke the previous administration’s union-busting memorandum,” he said. “DOD workers have had the right to join a union and bargain collectively since 1962, and since that time they have proudly supported our service members during wartime and peacetime and helped keep our country safe . . . President Biden’s decision to revoke this memo ensures that DOD workers will retain the right to join a union and bargain collectively for better working conditions, and it is yet another positive step by his administration to support the working people who serve our country with honor and distinction.”