How not to impose change on employees

On the eve of this week’s All-Star baseball extravaganza in Washington, D.C., baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred and players union chief Tony Clark traded barbs over labor issues. I see parallels in the growing dispute between federal employee unions and the Trump administration.

Players are convinced owners somehow conspired to suppress free agency salaries in last winter’s trading season. Commissioner Robert Manfred told baseball writers that owners each made individual choices about what players were worth and the results came out as they did. It’s a free market.

Well, yes and no. Congress in 1922 granted, and the Supreme Court has upheld ever since, a Major League Baseball exemption from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Just last month, the court declined to hear two appeals from plaintiffs who’d challenged MLB teams on antitrust grounds. Free agency — an ever-morphing artifice from the 1970s — and the market it generates operates within that antittrust exemption framework.

Federal employment isn’t totally analogous to sports, but it has some similarities. Feds also live in a hybrid world. Most have constitutionally protected rights to their jobs, as codified in Title 5 of the U.S. Code. They have appeal rights to adverse actions. They have the right to organize (but not bargain over pay and benefits). They also are subject to probationary periods upon starting a job. They can be fired quickly for some causes, with more elaborate process for others.

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Only Congress can change the basics of federal employment. It does so from time to time.

But within the legal framework, the White House has a lot of discretion to deal with employees. For instance, it can legally limit the performance improvement periods given to a particular employee to 30 days. It can apparently evict unions from their offices within public buildings. It can neck down official time and restrict what unions can use it for. All of which the Trump administration is telling agencies to do and some are doing.

Unions are challenging these and over moves in court. Whether they prevail is anyone’s guess at this moment.

The administration wants to reset the relationship between unions and the government. These things go back and forth. The George W. Bush administration suspended the regular union-management forums. The Obama administration reinstated them. President Trump has stopped them again. But the ferocity of the changes, such as the eviction of AFGE Council 220 from Social Security Administration offices,  seems counterproductive. In my interview with Council President Witold Skwierczynski, he described an overnight rescue of documents and office contents because SSA officials confiscated them. He says the 88 percent overnight reduction in official time forced him to retire so he could continue union duties. He hadn’t done his Social Security job in years and would need retraining to return to it.

It no doubt seems strange to the average citizen that the government maintains on its payroll people who spend fulltime. The counterarguments include the facts that the agency has gone along with this situation for decades, it amounts to a tiny portion of the budget, and the bargaining unit does after all contain some 45,000 people.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the administration is completely within its rights. Is it going about change in such a way as to preserve trust and good employee relations.