Trump administration advances policy that could block DOD unions

The delegation of authority is the first step in a plan that could lead to the elimination of unions at civilian defense agencies.

The Pentagon (Photo by Ivan Cholakov / Shutterstock)

The Trump administration is pushing ahead with a policy that gives the Defense Department the authority to circumvent collective bargaining rules.

A document outlining the policy shift was published in the Federal Register Feb. 21, three weeks after President Donald Trump issued a memo to Defense Secretary Mark Esper granting him authority to exempt Defense Department agencies and subdivisions from the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations law.

The memo cited national security and flexibility as a rationale for circumventing the process of collectively bargaining with DOD employees.

"This flexibility requires that military and civilian leadership manage their organizations to cultivate a lethal, agile force adaptive to new technologies and posture changes," Trump wrote in the Jan. 29 memo. "Where collective bargaining is incompatible with these organizations' missions, the Department of Defense should not be forced to sacrifice its national security mission and, instead, seek relief through third parties and administrative fora."

The 1978 Civil Service Reform Act allows the president to exclude agencies from having to engage in collective bargaining in emergencies via written order. It's not clear from the language of the memo how this authority would be applied and whether it could overrule existing collective bargaining agreements. The order does require the DOD secretary or other official to whom this authority has been delegated to publish determinations about eliminating collective bargaining in the Federal Register.

DOD has 750,000 civilian employees and more than 400,000 of these represented by unions. Uniformed military personnel are not permitted to unionize under law.

Congressional and labor leaders have expressed their concern at the implication the memo carries for curtailing federal workers' workplace rights.

"Denying nearly half a million Defense Department workers the collective bargaining rights guaranteed to them by law since 1962 would be a travesty -- and doing it under the guise of 'national security' would be a disgrace to the sacred oath and obligation that all federal workers make to their country," said Everett Kelly, American Federation of Government Employees national secretary-treasurer. "This administration will not stop until it takes away all workers' rights to form and join a union, and we will not stop doing everything we can to prevent that from happening."

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), whose state is home to more than 6,000 civilian Navy jobs, vowed at a recent labor conference to work with her colleagues in both parties to stop the Trump administration from rolling back collective bargaining rights.

"I do not accept the Trump administration's rationale [of flexibility]," she said.