Senators push back against Trump’s union-busting

Minnesota Senators Tina Smith (L) and Amy Klobuchar

In his administration’s latest swipe at federal unions, President Trump last month gave Defense Secretary Mark Esper unprecedented authority to strip collective bargaining rights from nearly 750,000 civilian workers at the agency.

Democratic senators, including Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, urged Esper in a letter last week “to exercise great restraint” with his new authority and avoid setting a “dangerous precedent.”

Smith, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said Democrats are committed to making sure the Department of Defense (DOD) continues bargaining with civilian workers, as it has for the last 60 years.

“As union members know, sometimes you have to fight to win fair treatment,” Smith said. “My colleagues and I are right there fighting with (union members), and that’s why we’re pushing back on the administration’s efforts to undermine collective bargaining.”

DOD workers potentially impacted by the new policy include janitors, firefighters, food-service workers, teachers, depot maintenance technicians, welders and other professionals. Their collective bargaining rights, Trump claimed in a document published in the Federal Register, could be “incompatible” with the agency’s “national security mission.”

Democratic senators aren’t buying it.

“There’s simply no evidence that this is true,” Smith said. “In fact, my Democratic colleagues and I believe having a unionized workforce actually enhances the security of our nation.”

In their letter to Esper, the senators point out that federal unions have helped expose health and safety hazards at the DOD, and rid the agency of “waste, fraud and abuse on the part of contractors.”

Federal employees gained the right to join a union and bargain collectively in 1962, when President Kennedy issued an executive order. Presidents since then have used executive power to narrow or, sometimes, expand the pool of federal workers eligible to join unions.

But a White House memo leaked last fall revealed Trump was weighing a much more drastic use of executive power: purging the federal workforce of unions altogether.

“Government unions impede the efficiency of federal operations and direct the government to put the interests of government employees first,” the memo reads. “Curtailing collective bargaining in government serves the public good.”

Nearly 500,000 DOD workers are currently covered by union contracts, including 300,000 represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). Everett Kelley, AFGE’s national president, called it insulting for the Trump administration to suggest the bargaining rights of civilian employees, who support the military during wars and other conflicts, somehow threaten national security.

“More than a third of these workers are veterans, and it’s an insult to these employees’ military service and their continued service to their country for the administration to claim that their union affiliation somehow threatens our national security,” Kelley said.

In their letter to Esper, senators note that collective bargaining has helped establish the department as an attractive employer, with fair wages and benefits, and attract highly skilled workers.

“In short, we believe that the Department’s unionized workforce has enhanced our security, not detracted from it,” the senators wrote. “President Trump’s Memorandum arbitrarily and needlessly threatens this positive relationship.”

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