New instructions to agencies to highlight union rights to their employees once again underscore the change of direction from the prior administration but go beyond what had been a strategy up to now of simply undoing that administration’s policies.
Among President Biden’s earliest actions was to issue an executive order revoking Trump administration orders to limit the topic over which agencies would negotiate, on-the-clock time for union representatives, grievance procedures and numerous other union-related policies.
The latest directives, under a later Biden order, would carry that a step farther by, in their words “highlighting the positive impact that unions have in all workplaces” and providing guidance on “actions federal agencies can take to encourage worker organizing and collective bargaining” under federal labor-management law.
A question and answer document accompanying the memo for new employees notes that the law requires agencies to be neutral regarding union organizing. However, “this does not mean agencies are prohibited from providing certain information to employees or removing certain obstacles that might inhibit a union’s ability to exercise its rights under the law,” it says.
It says that “actions can be taken in the hiring and on-boarding process for job applicants and new employees to better understand their rights under [labor law], where applicable.”
The memo for current employees similarly says that “actions can be taken to ensure federal employees are aware of their bargaining unit status, the rights afforded to them [under labor-management law], and how employees can engage with their union.”
The policy touches on an issue that long has been a sore point for federal unions, which are obligated to represent everyone in a bargaining unit—including those who don’t pay dues whom they call “free-riders.” While about six-tenths of federal employees outside the Postal Service are in bargaining units, only about a third of those pay dues (representation and dues-paying rates are much higher in the Postal Service).
Unions praised the policy, with several of them calling it a “boost” to them that would give employees a stronger voice in workplace matters. However, in a reflection of the extent to which federal unions are now a partisan issue, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C, the top Republican on the Education and Labor Committee said that “forcing the federal government to weave union-related materials into its hiring and on-boarding processes is an incestuous overreach.”