High Court Case Doesn’t Directly Affect Federal Unions

There seems to be a misconception among some federal employees that a case argued before the Supreme Court this week will impact federal unions, and thus the rights of employees.

While the case involves a union that does have bargaining units in the federal government, AFSCME, the issue there is not directly relevant to federal unions. The suit involves a challenge by a state government employee to being compelled to pay a fee to the union where he works even though he did not choose to become a dues-paying member, a so-called “agency shop” arrangement.

In the federal government, employees covered by a union bargaining unit are free to join or not join the union as dues-paying members, and neither management nor the union is allowed to coerce that decision. Unions further may not charge a fee to non-members such as the one at issue in the court case, even though they are obligated to represent all members of the unit regardless of dues-paying status.

Unions view “official time”—on-the-clock time in which federal employees who hold union roles may perform certain union-related duties—as the tradeoff for that obligation—in essence, a substitute for compulsory fees to defray the costs of representing non-members. Some Republicans in Congress have pushed for years to better account for the use of official time, widely seen as a potential first step toward limiting or eliminating it. They have not, however, addressed the obligation to represent non-members as a tradeoff.

The Trump administration also has not directly addressed that tradeoff, although it did mention the current obligation in a section of its recent budget proposal stating an intent to “overhaul labor-management relations.” As with many other proposals affecting federal employees, that intent was not further defined, except to cite a step already taken, to end the Obama administration’s program of labor-management “forums” and greater union involvement in management decisions.