Hundreds of government employees gathered outside a courthouse in downtown Washington on Wednesday to protest President Trump's executive orders that changed the rules governing the federal workforce, calling the measures an assault on the civil service and a threat to democracy.
Workers, union representatives and lawmakers rallied behind the cry of Red for Feds, with protesters draped in the color to show their collective support. A federal judge on Wednesday was set to hold the first hearing in a consolidated lawsuit brought by more than a dozen labor groups representing federal employees, challenging the constitutionality of three executive orders Trump signed in May. The orders seek to streamline the firing process, exempt adverse personnel actions from grievance procedures, speed up collective bargaining negotiations and severely limit union employees’ ability to conduct representational activities while on the clock in their federal jobs.
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Speakers at the rally said the pending fight against the Trump administration was an existential one for the federal civil service and their unions, but expressed optimism their side would prevail.
“Right there in that courthouse it will be decided if we will be going on,” American Federation of Government Employees president J. David Cox said at the rally, held in the shadow of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where Wednesday’s hearing was being held. “I don’t know about you, but I plan on kicking ass and taking names.”
Employees from agencies across government gathered at the event, holding signs that read “EO hell NO” and “These executive orders are illegal!” The crowd chanted “red for feds,” “we fight for workers rights,” “vote them out” and even “lock them up.” An array of Democratic lawmakers spoke at the rally, including leadership in both the House and Senate.
“The hard right has tried to make you the scapegoat,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “They have tried to say you don’t work hard enough . . . they have tried to say you get paid too much.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Trump has not followed through on key promises he made in the run up to his election.
“During his campaign for president, Trump told the American people that he would be a champion of working families,” Sanders said. “He lied. You are not a champion of working families when you sign anti-labor executive orders that make it easier to fire union workers and take away their constitutional rights to bargain collectively.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said Republicans were using a “two-fisted approach” to attack the federal workforce through both legislation and executive actions.
Trump administration officials, she said, “have declared war on their own workforce.”
Lawmakers and the protesters made clear they would fight back, through lawsuits, union organization and mobilizing voters in the upcoming midterm elections.
“We have never seen the kind of assault on the federal employees that we have seen in the last two years,” said Gerry Connolly, D-Md.. “We’re here today not to say, ‘Pretty please, don’t hurt us.’ We’re here to say we have rights as federal employees and they’re going to be respected.”
The unions already scored an initial victory this week, with the Federal Labor Relations Authority finding an unfair labor practice challenge by AFGE against the Education Department held merit. The department in March unilaterally imposed a new contract on AFGE that cut official time, reduced telework and unwound a series of rights granted to employees that had existed in previous agreements. Education officials said they decided to move forward after AFGE spent more than a year “dragging its feet” on “ground rules negotiations.”
An FLRA representative this week told AFGE and Education that there is “sufficient evidence” to charge the department with violating its statutory requirement to bargain in good faith. Any FLRA ruling will likely come without teeth, as the agency can only issue a judgment that carries weight if the case has been vetted and brought forward by its general counsel, a position for which Trump has not nominated a candidate. While the findings are only preliminary, and Education’s alleged violations occurred prior to Trump’s orders, AFGE said they served as a warning shot to federal agencies across government against implementing the executive actions.
Such implementation has already begun, as the Office of Personnel Management earlier this month issued guidance on how to implement many of the provisions of the executive orders. Several agencies already have taken action to restrict employees’ ability to use official time, frequently circumventing the renegotiation process suggested in the orders. Unions representing employees at the Social Security Administration, the Veterans Affairs Department, Housing and Urban Development, and the Bureau of Prisons have all reported management actions to unilaterally restrict the use of official time or to evict unions from agency office space.
According to documents already filed in court, the Trump administration was expected to argue on Wednesday that the district court lacks jurisdiction for hearing the challenges and that unions were premature in filing them. In its own filing, AFGE noted the enforcement actions already taking place and said the government’s position amounted to “not even the barest rebuttal to AFGE’s argument, or the facts supporting it.”
The lawsuits were brought by AFGE; the National Treasury Employees Union; and the Federal Workers Alliance, a coalition of 13 smaller unions.
If the unions are not successful in court, the Democrats speaking at their rally already have a plan B in mind.
“We must roll all of that back,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said of the executive orders, “and we will when we win in November.”
Erich Wagner contributed to this report.