New federal worker guidelines were announced in October to promote union education and participation, led by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Photo credit: White House via Flickr

New guidelines to encourage federal workers to join unions were announced by Vice President Kamala Harris and Labor Department Secretary Marty Walsh in October, continuing an administration-wide effort to promote union membership in the workplace.

The two executive actions from the Office of Personnel Management center on educating members of the federal workforce about their bargaining rights at work. The federal government is the country's largest employer, with more than 2.1 million non-postal employees, but only 20% of them belong to a union.

"Being the largest employer in the nation — I think people sometimes forget that — the federal government has a responsibility to lead by example when it comes to labor rights and to make sure that all federal jobs are good jobs," OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said at the event announcing the new guidelines.

One of the executive actions focuses on new and prospective hires. Under the guidance, agencies are urged to inform them about the collective bargaining status and union affiliation associated with each position, and to include that information in job announcements. Agencies should also provide these details to new hires during the orientation process and make information available on how employees can become dues-paying members.

"We want to ensure that job applicants and new employees receive this information about their rights on day one," Ahuja said.

The other action urges agencies to remind current employees of their rights under the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Act on a quarterly or biannual basis. The information should explain how employees can become active union members and include contact information for their local bargaining unit representatives.

"Every federal employee should know their bargaining rights, how to contact their union and where to find this information," Ahuja said. "I know this sounds all very basic and straightforward, but these are things we want to make sure are happening across federal government."

The new actions stem from an executive order President Joe Biden signed in April that created a White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment to encourage collective bargaining. Both Harris and Walsh are co-chairs.

Government Employees Director Paul O'Connor says that the IBEW is already doing much of what these new actions call for.

"The IBEW does a much better job than most other unions when it comes to organizing new employees in federal sector open shops," O'Connor said. "Federal employees need to know their rights. They need to know how and where to access information. And it is always helpful when a president's administration understands the value of labor unions and takes steps to educate employees on those values."

However, O'Connor also noted the less-than-direct language in the orders and how limiting that can be.

"I see words like 'urging agencies' and 'strongly encourage agencies.' Nothing in the executive order or OPM guidance requires agencies to do anything. The successful implementation of the order will correlate directly with the quality of the labor-management relationships at the local level. That is historically how this type of language plays out."

Another aspect of the executive actions is that they only last as long as a president's prerogative.

"It's easy for agencies to wait out such passive language until the next administration comes along and changes things back," O'Connor said. "This is actually a huge issue in the federal sector. Executive orders are invoked and revoked at the drop of a hat, including labor-management partnerships, dramatically changing rules and policies with such regularity it is all but impossible to maintain a workplace where employees are respected and valued, where employee motivation and morale remain positive.

"Real, substantive change needs to be institutionalized. It needs to be codified by Congress where it cannot be so easily revoked by future administrations. Anything short of that continues to expose our federal-sector brothers and sisters to unscrupulous future administrations. We need look no further than the previous administration to understand the damage which can be imposed without strong, decisive legislation designed to protect our highly trained, highly skilled federal employees."

O'Connor says the IBEW, through its membership with the Federal Workers Alliance, is spearheading an initiative to do just that and strengthen existing legislation in the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Act.

"Executive orders have become the easy, immediate fix, but without legislation to codify these actions, those fixes will remain fleeting," O'Connor said.