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Federal judge overturns Trump administration’s anti-federal union orders

On Saturday, a federal judge invalidated key provisions in three executive orders the Trump administration issued in May, which had made it easier for agencies to fire federal workers and placed strict limits on union activities. (The orders did not apply to the Postal Service and its unions.)

In her ruling, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said the executive orders were a clear violation of the 1978 Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute of 1978. Under that statute, Congress gave federal employees the right to unionize and negotiate job contracts as a matter “of public interest.”

“The Court has concluded that many of the challenged provisions of the Orders at issue here effectively reduce the scope of the right to bargain collectively as Congress has crafted it, or impair the ability of agency officials to bargain in good faith as Congress has directed, and therefore cannot be sustained,”

The district court’s ruling on August 25 resolved four lawsuits filed against the Trump administration by several federal employee unions, led by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). The unions challenged the three orders Trump signed in May that rolled back labor protections for federal workers.

One order made it easier to fire and discipline federal employees. Depending on the agency, firing an employee for poor performance could take six months to a year, not including the appeals process. This order gave employees only 30 days to improve their job performance, instead of the current limit of up to 120 days. It also instructed agencies to ignore contracts that prioritized seniority during layoffs.

Another executive order directed federal agencies to spend less time negotiating contracts with labor unions and set a goal of no more than six months to reach an agreement, after which the agencies would be free to unilaterally implement contracts containing their “last best offers.” This would have destroyed the agencies’ incentives to bargain in good faith.

A third order placed limits on how much time employees in union leadership roles can spend on union activities during work hours. This is known as “official time,” and it can include helping other employees file grievances or resolve other workplace problems. The administration sought to limit official time to 25 percent of an employee’s yearly work hours.

The administration said it has the legal authority to give such guidance to executive agencies that answer to the president. But the orders prompted immediate litigation from government unions.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which is the largest union involved in the lawsuits, said the efforts were a “direct assault on the legal rights and protections that Congress specifically guaranteed to the public sector employees across this country who keep our federal government running every single day.”

Judge Jackson’s ruling described the Trump administration’s defense of the orders as an attempt to do “verbal jujitsu” with the law. She rejected the argument that the administration had the power to interfere with union negotiations that are protected under federal law.

“There is no rational explanation for Defendants’ suggestion that Congress would have intended for the President to have the power to act in this fashion at all in regard to the matters that the FSLMRS specifically characterizes as negotiable. Quite frankly, it is hard to even imagine a rational statutory exception that is intentionally designed to swallow the rule,” she wrote.

Jackson effectively revoked most of the measures in the executive orders, although federal unions may need to take further judicial action to reverse actions taken under the improper executive orders.

“This is a huge win for all federal employees, including postal employees whose rights could have been targeted next” NALC President Fred Rolando said. “We thank our brothers and sisters at AFGE – and the other federal unions – for defending our rights under the law.”