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Unions Continue to Fault SSA Over Stalled Contract Renegotiations

Labor leaders accuse Trump holdovers atop the agency of seeking to retain “advantages” over unions during future negotiations rather than fully comply with President Biden’s directive to eradicate the previous administration’s workforce policies.

Unions at the Social Security Administration reported that the agency’s leadership continues to stall on efforts to reopen contracts negotiated during the Trump administration, three months after President Biden told agencies to do so via executive order and a week after a self-imposed deadline for SSA to review its collective bargaining agreements.

On his third day in office, Biden signed an executive order rescinding a number of Trump-era anti-union policies, including restrictions on the scope of union-agency negotiations, caps on official time, and efforts to make it easier to fire federal employees. In March, the Office of Personnel Management issued guidance on how agencies should implement the order, which instructed agencies to reopen union contracts “as soon as is practicable.”

Later that month, following complaints of slow movement by Social Security Administration leadership to implement Biden’s workforce policies, officials at the agency said it was in the midst of a review of all labor contracts and that officials had asked the unions for their input. The self-imposed deadline for that process was April 23.

But a week after that deadline, the labor groups said they have not seen any new action by SSA leadership to reopen old agreements.

“According to [the American Federation of Government Employees], SSA hasn’t returned to the table yet and hasn’t reopened its 2019 agency-employee contract,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Thursday during a Senate Finance Committee hearing. “Why has SSA delayed this process after a clear directive to return to the table?”

Social Security Administration Deputy Commissioner for Operations Grace Kim noted that the agency is engaged in post-implementation bargaining over the agency’s workforce safety plan, but deflected questions about why the agency has not taken action on collective bargaining agreements.

“We have returned to the table—we are bargaining currently over the workplace safety plan, which right now limits our ability to bring employees in beyond 25%, and under the plan we are still utilizing maximum telework,” Kim said. “Once we get to the point where we get further White House guidance on the ability to reopen and at a point where we can revisit instituting a telework program, we will be engaging in good faith negotiations about that.”

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., asked why negotiations over the workplace safety plan were being done post-implementation.

“I’d just point out that it’s always best if you work together in a nonconfrontational way with the same set of facts, and the way you presented that you presented the plan to the union and are now negotiating, it seems that the union should have been involved in the initial aspects of developing the plan, but I take it that they were not,” Cardin said.

“They were not,” Kim said. “We’re entering post-implementation bargaining for the workforce safety plan, but President Biden’s [workplace safety] executive order and the Office of Management and Budget guidance did permit agencies to move forward with the plans because of health and safety concerns and the necessity of agencies having such plans in place, and then entering post-implementation bargaining at that point.”

But Melissa McIntosh, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, said the agency's reluctance to implement Biden’s workforce agenda is apparent. She said that the agency has refused to request that the Federal Service Impasses Panel withdraw its order imposing a largely pro-management contract on the union, despite claiming to have “no preconditions” to return to negotiations. That order has remained unimplemented since it was issued in April 2020, as it is the subject of a federal court case challenging the constitutionality of how members of the impasses panel are appointed.

“The bottom line is this: they want the advantage that the panel order provides them,” McIntosh said. “They want the ability to implement the panel order, should we not prevail in our pending court case, and imposing that order, that Trump-era union-busting order, would effectively eliminate us . . . If we resumed negotiations, we wouldn’t be back to the table as equals, because the panel order would still be hanging over our head.”

In a statement, SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle said the agency is “enthusiastically complying” with Biden’s workforce executive order, and accused AALJ of hampering efforts to resume negotiations.

“On multiple occasions, SSA has offered to renegotiate the entire collective bargaining agreement with AALJ,” Hinkle wrote. “SSA has not set any preconditions to return to the bargaining table. Despite numerous efforts, the AALJ has not agreed to return to the bargaining table.”

But in an April 21 email to McIntosh, the agency committed only to “revisiting” the contract negotiated during the Trump administration.

“Concerning your preconditions, we are not willing to jointly request that the FSIP withdraw the panel order dated April 15, 2020,” the email stated. “However, we want to return to the bargaining table and are certainly open to revisiting all 29 articles, including the nine articles decided by the panel.”

McIntosh said there is a clear legal difference between being willing to “renegotiate” a contract versus “revisiting” elements of a contract.

“Revisiting an article is not reopening an article,” she said. “In labor law, if you reopen an article, you have to negotiate to impasse. And so if you don’t reopen and do a sidebar [as SSA has done temporarily for official time with AFGE], only the sidebar is negotiable to impasse . . . SSA can be very cagey in their communications, in their never-ending quest for plausible deniability. I clearly set forward our preconditions on returning to the table. Some might ask why I’m not so happy just to go back to the bargaining table? Well, if as a condition of that, they can still impose the panel order, why would I do that?”