OP-ED: Strong unions make for better workplaces

Everett Kelley
Progressive Media Project (TNS)
President Joe Biden speaks Tuesday at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as he commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

President Joe Biden is moving swiftly and decisively to protect and expand union rights for federal employees, following years of attacks under the Trump administration. As the head of the largest federal sector union, I’m proud to know that we have a president who wants to work with labor, not against us, to improve how the government treats its workers and serves the public.

For nearly 60 years, federal government employees have had the right to join a union, collectively bargain for better working conditions, and use the grievance arbitration process to resolve workplace disputes. These rights have been expanded under both Democratic and Republican administrations and were enshrined into law by Congress in 1978.

In that law, Congress declared that collective bargaining is “in the public interest” because, among other things, it “contributes to the effective conduct of public business” and facilitates “the amicable settlements of disputes between employees and their employers.”

In short, by granting federal government workers union rights, the government works more effectively. This increased effectiveness is because unions help workers address issues at the work site, get fair resolutions, and then get back to work.

But to a much greater extent than previous administrations, the Trump administration demonized labor unions and did everything it could to strip workers of their legal rights and protections. In May 2018, President Donald Trump signed three executive orders that curtailed government employees’ union rights, allowing federal agencies to disregard binding union contracts and impose illegal management edicts on the workforce. This was lawless union-busting in action, in our own government.

Biden, on his second full day in office, threw out those anti-worker executive orders and ordered agencies to work with unions to restore collective bargaining agreements that were in place prior to Trump’s actions.

But Biden also went further by expanding federal workers’ rights to cover subjects that were previously at management’s discretion — items known in labor parlance as “permissive subjects.”

Under the law, federal employees have most, but not all, of the same labor rights afforded to private-sector employees. Agencies must negotiate with federal labor unions on all personnel policies covering the terms and conditions of employment. But federal employees cannot strike, and there are certain subjects that they are expressly prohibited from bargaining over — notably salaries, health insurance and retirement benefits.

Biden’s executive order, for the first time, requires agencies to engage in bargaining over all issues that are not expressly prohibited by law. With this expansion, Biden is doing more to strengthen worker rights inside the federal government than any president in a generation.

This pro-union stance extends beyond federal workers, too; in April, Biden signed an executive order creating a task force of more than 20 Cabinet members and heads of other federal agencies, whose job is to leverage federal programs and policies to empower more workers to organize and bargain with their employers. And he has strongly endorsed the PRO Act, which would make it easier for workers in the private sector to unionize.

That is a relief to the government employees who serve the public every day and should be welcome news for all Americans.

— Everett Kelley is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, which is the largest union representing federal and D.C. government employees. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.