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4 takeaways from the recently reinstated executive orders

On Behalf of | Nov 18, 2019 | Employee Rights

Three executive orders that had been held up in court have recently been put back into effect, and federal employees can expect changes to follow.

As the Government Executive reports, the Trump administration issued three orders back in May that targeted federal unions and their disciplinary processes. The orders were almost immediately blocked by a district court ruling, but that ruling has been vacated by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. This means the orders are back in effect. So how do they affect federal employees?

Limits on union activity and representation

Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 to protect workers’ rights. It gave worker unions the power to negotiate with employers, and it limited some harmful management practices. Unions shortly became central players in the American workforce. But they peaked in the 1970s and have since declined.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that only about 6.4% of private-sector workers now belong to a union. Public-sector workers are more likely to join unions. The BLS says nearly 33.9% of public-sector employees are union members. Local government employees, such as teachers and firefighters, are more likely to unionize. Federal employees are less likely.

Many people still view unions as champions for workers’ rights. But others see bureaucracy and wasted money. In this context, the Trump administration issued the executive orders 13836, 13837 and 13839. The administration says they aim to improve efficiency and accountability. Accordingly, they:

  • Set a 30-day time limit on performance improvement plans
  • Direct agencies to take a stricter, more independent approach to employee discipline
  • Limit the time for collective bargaining and force agencies to rework all existing agreements once they expire
  • Restrict union representatives’ access to office space, materials and non-authorized time

Unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) question the stated purpose of these orders. They claim the limits the orders place on their activities and representation are meant to weaken and break them. But while union leaders argue the orders go against workers’ rights, many agencies have already taken steps toward compliance.

Federal employees caught in the wake

It is unclear how the changes will ripple outward. Most federal employees are not union members, and it is unclear how long the orders may remain in effect. The Court of Appeals vacated the lower court’s ruling because that court didn’t have jurisdiction. Union leaders have since claimed they may take their case to the body that does.

In the meantime, some employees may be surprised as agencies take sudden steps to comply with current OPM guidelines.


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