Restoring worker freedom in the federal workforce

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Unions are an indispensable part of the private sector, but unfortunately many federal employees, while not forced to join unions, work under conditions in which unions have a disproportionate voice.

Federal employee unions cannot strike or negotiate over wages or benefits, which are set by Congress, but increasing numbers of federal employees are governed by collective bargaining agreements that grant wide latitude to unions.

CBAs now trump everything except federal law. In the military, for example, service regulations, many command decisions, and even the Code of Federal Regulations bow before union authority. Strong unions in the federal workforce are unnecessary, as U.S. government employees already enjoy civil service protections that make their jobs more secure than that of the last veterinarian on Noah's Ark. More than unneeded, however, federal unions are at odds with worker freedoms, inhibit workplace improvements and cost taxpayers millions of dollars every year.

One of the pillars of union power is the precedent of "past practices." According to this, if a supervisor allows conduct -- even if it wasteful -- it cannot be changed without negotiated agreement with union leadership. For example, if a supervisor allowed workers to leave work 30 minutes early on Fridays, while paying them for the entire shift, a new supervisor could not enforce normal hours -- in other words, a day's pay for a full day's work -- without "negotiating" with the union.

In order even to begin the negotiations, the supervisor would have to grant union representatives release time, at taxpayers' expense and during working hours, so they could prepare. By one estimate, this release time cost taxpayers $120 million in 2009 -- subsidies paid by the U.S. Treasury so union representatives could engage in political activity, instead of doing the jobs for which the American people hired them.

Under many CBAs, the union has a right to be present at all discussions between supervisors and employees, even if the employees themselves do not want the union to be there. For example, if a manager wants to talk to a worker about implementing new safety rules, or something as mundane as moving a copy machine, union reps can demand to participate.

Every change in work conditions, however minor, is subject to these "negotiations." It is no wonder that many supervisors despair of improving efficiencies, saving taxpayers from unneeded expenses, or of disciplining employees who are members of unions. On the latter issue, it can be nearly impossible to effectively manage an active union member; under federal law, union members have the so-called "Weingarten Rights" to refuse to answer any questions about their work unless a union rep is allowed to be present, if the worker believes he might be subject to disciplinary action. Under this provision, a supervisor cannot ask a worker why he was late, whether he completed an assigned task, or if he followed a workplace rule, without being rebuffed until a union rep arrives, which could be a delay of days, or even weeks.

It would be one thing if CBAs had the support of all workers. However, under current policy, workers covered by CBAs do not have a right to opt out of having unions represent them. In many cases, unions are empowered to negotiate CBAs without the knowledge and consent of workers.

In a recent incident, there was a "vote" to endorse union representation of civilian workers under one Department of Defense agency. Out of about 1,000 workers, only nine participated in the election -- the rest either had not heard of the vote or did not want union representation. Nonetheless, all 1,000 are now represented by a union.

These practices are at odds with liberty and should be changed. Unions should have to be confirmed by a vote of a majority of eligible workers every two to three years. If a union cannot muster support from 50.1 percent of employees in a free vote, they should not be allowed to enter into CBAs with the U.S. government.

There needs to be a true right to work at the federal level, with individual workers able to opt out completely from union intervention in their workplace activities. Supervisors should be restored their First Amendment rights to criticize unfair union practices.

Finally, the union work of union representatives should be paid for by union dues, either by reimbursing the U.S. Treasury when union officials are not at their jobs, or by paying salaries directly to those union reps, who could then take unpaid leave for time they serve the union.

With these changes in place, unions would have to prove themselves of real value to federal employees, not just surviving at great cost not only to the American people, but to the freedoms of the workers they ostensibly represent.

Wayne H. Bowen is a professor and chairman of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University.

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