Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., speaks at a rally for President Trump last fall. Roe said union incentive payments for federal employees to join are a “shocking” practice.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., speaks at a rally for President Trump last fall. Roe said union incentive payments for federal employees to join are a “shocking” practice. Mark Humphrey / AP

Lawmakers Look to Ban 'Bribes' Federal Unions Use to Recruit New Members

Union says payments are merely rebates used to incentivize participation.

House Republicans are looking to prevent federal employee unions from offering prospective new members incentive payments to join, equating the discounted rates to a “bribe.” 

The VA Workplace Integrity Act (H.R. 4503) would apply only to the Veterans Affairs Department, preventing its secretary from entering into a collective bargaining agreement that offers “financial incentives to prospective members.” The American Federation of Government Employees, however, which represents most VA employees, said the program that prompted the bill is merely a discount it sometimes offers to solicit new members. 

The incentives typically come in the form of a check from the union local in the new employee’s workplace, said Andrew Huddleston, an AFGE spokesman, referring to the payments as a rebate program. AFGE runs the initiative at agencies across government on an intermittent basis as determined by its specific councils. The rebate comes from their dues payment once all their union paperwork is completed. 

“They’ve got a characterization here that is sort of strange to me,” Huddleston said. 

Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Fla., who introduced the bill, said the rebates create an undue influence that pressures new employees to join the union. 

“Manipulating new federal employees at the VA to join a union with a $100 bribe as they walk in the door is unethical,” Dunn said. “Federal employees should have the freedom to choose whether or not they join a union and participate in union activities on their own accord.”

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, where VA employees first voiced concerns about the incentive payments, called the offering of $100 rebates of dues during employee orientation a “shocking” practice that amounted to “financial manipulation to strong-arm” employees. Dunn last week wrote a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie asking for more information about the practice and for a general counsel ruling on its legality. 

Huddleston said the rebates were intended only to make membership more accessible to employees who may otherwise face a financial burden in paying their dues. He equated the practice to an organization like the AARP offering a temporary 20% discount on its dues to recruit new members. He also accused lawmakers of deflecting from a more pressing issue of vacancies at VA, which currently total about 49,000. 

J. David Cox, AFGE national president, said committee Republicans were wasting time. 

"Every American who buys groceries, makes a big purchase, or joins an organization with monthly fees understands how discounts and rebates work," Cox said. "When so much important work needs to be done for our nation’s veterans, this type of nakedly political activity is a truly shameful distraction." 

He added that doing "actual, substantive oversight work" and tackling the vacancies issue would "actually help some of our nation’s veterans.”

The VA inspector general issued a report on Monday that found 96% of Veterans Health Administration facilities maintain at least one “severe occupational staffing shortage,” with a lack of qualified applicants and non-competitive salary as the two most common reasons for the shortfalls.