Social Security Administration office in Redwood City, California.

Social Security Administration office in Redwood City, California. Sundry Photography/iStock

Unions Dog SSA Leadership over Perceived Inaction on Workforce Order

More than a week after OPM issued guidance on reopening union contracts negotiated during the Trump administration, Social Security Administration officials are dragging their feet, union officials say.

Nearly two months after President Biden rescinded a series of Trump administration anti-union directives and instructed federal agencies to bargain with labor groups over a much wider scope of issues, union officials said the leadership of the Social Security Administration still isn’t doing enough to comply with the new administration’s plans for labor-management relations.

On Biden’s third day in office, he signed an executive order that rescinded the Trump administration’s federal workforce policies and ordered agencies to engage in so-called “permissive bargaining,” a term that refers to a wide array of workplace issues that traditionally can be subject to negotiation only at the discretion of an agency head. But in the days and weeks that followed, many agencies failed to turn over a new leaf in the labor-management arena, saying they required additional guidance from their legal teams and the Office of Personnel Management.

On March 5, Acting OPM Director Kathleen McGettigan issued that guidance, and the message to agencies was clear: If you have implemented a union contract enforcing elements of President Trump’s workforce policies, you must reopen the agreement and negotiate with the union.

“In carrying out this task, agencies should take a hard look at the degree to which, if any, [the executive orders] influenced bargaining-table strategy and decision-making,” McGettigan wrote. “[Biden’s order] neither requires nor prohibits affected agencies from reopening CBAs on other matters not related to subjects covered by [the Trump orders].”

But in the intervening days, union officials at the Social Security Administration said that leadership at the agency have done the bare minimum to move toward compliance with the new order.

Melissa McIntosh, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, said the agency last week agreed to cease implementation of a partial contract that it previously had unilaterally imposed despite the fact that a number of contract articles remained in dispute due to litigation over the appointment status of Federal Service Impasses Panel members. But that decision was made after an arbitrator found that the partial contract implementation violated federal labor law.

“Nothing’s really changed here at SSA,” McIntosh said. “We are happy that they decided to comply with the arbitration award at the 11th hour, but there is so much more that needs to be done.”

McIntosh noted that the agency thus far has not offered to renegotiate any of the contract provisions that are related to the Trump workforce executive orders, and nothing has changed regarding the labor-management “culture.”

“If [Commissioner Andrew] Saul and [Deputy Commissioner David] Black wanted to renegotiate all 29 articles of our contract, they would do that,” she said. “But they haven’t. So what we have so far are somewhat empty gestures and just window dressing. Nothing of substance has happened.”

In a statement, agency spokesman Mark Hinkle said Social Security has begun a review of all of its union contracts and has asked for unions' "input," which it expects to complete by April 23. He said the agency is moving "enthusiastically" and at a "reasonable speed" to implement Biden's workforce order.

"Social Security is serious about improving labor-management relations," Hinkle wrote. "We value our workforce and the important service they provide to the American public. While changes, even positive changes, may take longer than some may expect, Social Security management is committed to moving quickly and responsibly in meeting all labor obligations."

American Federation of Government Employees Council 220 President Ralph DeJuliis, whose union ratified a new contract under duress in 2019, said the agency and AFGE reached a deal to temporarily restore the union’s official time, but only until Sept. 30, after which point the policy could revert to the Trump-era policy if the union and agency have not reached agreement on a permanent alternative. But the agency has been slow to return to the bargaining table, something he believes is a deliberate ploy.

“What the agency is trying to do is piecemeal us,” DeJuliis said. “They said we’ll meet on official time, but that’s only through Sept. 30, and then it’s back to the 2019 agreement on Oct. 1. We tell them that we want to sit down and negotiate the whole contract, and they say, ‘Well, we need to prepare and sit down and look at it one thing at a time.’ Our strategy is that we’re not going to stop all the litigation we have pending, we won’t stop filing unfair labor practices and we’ll continue to make bargaining demands and hope they do the right thing.”

DeJuliis said AFGE’s position is that the parties must return to the 2012 collective bargaining agreement and restart negotiations on a new contract from scratch. The agency has so far resisted calls to reopen the entire contract for bargaining, despite the Biden administration’s instructions.

“Their response [to our calls to reopen the contract] was, ‘Well, you agreed to it, so that proves nothing was negatively impacted by the executive orders,’” DeJuliis said.

On Monday, officials at Social Security sent a copy of the agency’s new COVID-19 workforce safety plan to union officials just two hours before publishing it for the entire workforce. Negotiations regarding the policy would only be allowed “post-implementation.” The executive order mandating the safety plan requires agencies to “promptly consult” federal employee unions on the plan’s implementation.

DeJuliis said that in the end, the agency’s recalcitrance was unsurprising.

“My first local president when I joined the agency in 1979 laughed and told me, ‘There are two ways of doing things: the right way, and the SSA way,’” he said. “Forty years later, and there are still two ways of doing things: the right way, and the SSA way. SSA relishes in doing it the wrong way, and then it tries to make the victim the person who is at fault. Any time I talk to any attorney on federal sector cases, they say the worst agency to deal with is SSA.”

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