Judge derails efforts to curb federal unions
Afederal district judge in Washington struck down most of the key provisions of three executive orders that President Donald Trump signed in late May that would have made it easier to fire federal employees.
The ruling, issued early Saturday, is a blow to Republican efforts to rein in public-sector labor unions, which states such as Wisconsin have aggressively curtailed in recent years. In June, the Supreme Court dealt publicsector unions a major blow by ending mandatory union fees for government workers nationwide. (Federal workers were already exempt from paying such fees.)
The ruling is the latest in a series of legal setbacks for the administration, which has suffered losses in court in its efforts to wield executive authority to press its agenda on immigration, voting and the environment.
The executive orders, which also rolled back the power of the unions that represent federal workers, had instructed agencies to seek to reduce the amount of time in which underperforming employees are allowed to demonstrate improvement before facing termination, from a maximum of up to 120 days to a maximum of 30 days, and to seek to limit workers’ avenues for appealing performance evaluations. The orders also sought to significantly reduce the amount of so-called official time that federal employees in union positions can spend on union business during work hours.
“We are very pleased that the court agreed that the president far exceeded his authority, and that the apolitical career federal work force shall be protected from these illegal, politically motivated executive orders,” Sarah Suszczyk, the co-chair of a coalition of governmentworkers unions, said in a statement.
In their legal complaint, the unions argued that the executive orders were illegal because federal law requires these rules to be negotiated between government agencies and the unions that represent their workers.
The complaint said that the president lacks the authority to override federal law on these questions, and the judge in the case, Ketanji Brown Jackson, agreed, writing that most of the key provisions of the executive orders “conflict with congressional intent in a manner that cannot be sustained.”
The White House had implicitly sought to preempt this critique in the text of the executive orders, styling the provisions as mere goals that the federal agencies should try to bring about through bargaining with the unions rather than unilateral mandates.
But Jackson flatly rejected this maneuver, arguing that the law requires agencies to negotiate in “good faith” and that the executive orders “impair the ability of agency officials to keep an open mind, and to participate fully in giveand-take discussions, during collective bargaining negotiations.”
The White House, facing the latest in a proliferation of high-profile legal challenges, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In announcing the executive orders, White House officials had portrayed them as a way to improve the functioning of government.
“These executive orders will make it easier for agencies to remove poorperforming employees and ensure that taxpayer dollars are more efficiently used,” Andrew Bremberg, head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said on a call with reporters in May.
Many experts on government bureaucracy agree that it can be too difficult to fire civil servants, but they say that the administration went significantly further than was necessary to achieve its stated goal.
“Very clearly the administration is trying to do all it can to weaken the role of public employee unions,” Donald F. Kettl, a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at Austin, said in an interview at the time. “It’s part of a far broader strategy, that’s in many ways bubbling up from the states, to turn the Civil Service into at-will employment.”
The Trump administration will most likely appeal the decision to a federal circuit court, and could then appeal to the Supreme Court if it loses there.
The orders, which were put in place across the government in July, had begun to create an atmosphere of fear among workers at many federal agencies.
“Employees are really frightened,” said Loni Schultz, a union official representing workers at the Social Security Administration in the Midwest. “They’re frightened about losing jobs. They have house payments, car payments, child care.”
Union officials had particularly chafed at the official time provisions of the executive orders. The White House, calling the practice “taxpayer-funded union time,” had portrayed it as a boondoggle in which government employees were paid to advance the political aims of their unions while shirking their official responsibilities. The executive order had sought to cap union time at 25 percent of an employee’s work-hours.
But union officials argued that they spent most of their official time defending fellow employees against unfair or arbitrary treatment by their supervisors. After the orders were carried out, many spent dozens of hours each week outside of work addressing questions and concerns from fellow workers.
Jackson found that the relevant executive order “completely reconceptualizes” the right of the unions to negotiate for official time even though Congress had specifically sought to protect that right.
In June, demonstrators march for public-sector union rights in New York. In a ruling issued early Saturday, a federal district judge in Washington dealt a blow to President Donald Trump’s effort to overhaul the U.S. bureaucracy.