Federal workers are in the president’s crosshairs.
Right before Labor Day, and just days after a judge foiled Donald Trump’s attempt to hurt those workers and their unions through executive orders, Trump fired back with a plan to cancel their scheduled pay raise.
This is “an ideologically driven attack on public sector workers,” said Lance Compa of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Trump is “basically doing what they tell him to do,” Compa said of the country’s right-wing billionaires. “Their motivation is strictly anti-union — to weaken if not get rid of unions altogether, both in the private sector and in the public sector.”
On Aug. 30, Trump said he planned to cancel the 2.1 percent pay increase scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, for nearly 2 million government workers and to freeze all automatic raises for civilian federal employees next year.
Uniformed military personnel are still scheduled to get a raise in January.
In a letter to Congress, Trump wrote, “Federal agency budgets cannot sustain such increases,” saying the wage hikes weren’t appropriate given current economic conditions, even though the U.S. economy continues to grow and corporate profits are up sharply. Trump, in fact, claimed in July that “we’ve accomplished an economic turnaround of historic proportions.”
Trump announced the wage-freeze plan five days after U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in Washington, D.C., struck down key provisions in Trump’s executive orders. The judge ruled in favor of more than a dozen federal unions that sued to block the three executive orders, which would have made it easier to terminate federal workers by reducing the amount of time in which underperforming employees are allowed to show improvement from a maximum of up to 120 days to a maximum of 30 days and by limiting workers’ ability to appeal performance evaluations. The orders also cut back on-the-clock time that workers in union positions can spend on union business.
Judge Brown ruled that the law requires federal agencies to negotiate in “good faith” with their unions and that Trump’s executive orders “impair the ability of agency officials to keep an open mind, and to participate fully in give-and-take discussions, during collective bargaining negotiations.”
The Trump administration, on Sept. 25, officially appealed the judge’s decision.
Under federal law, wages of federal workers are supposed to grow in conjunction with wages in the private sector. Average private sector wage growth, as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor, minus 0.5 percent, becomes the automatic raise in the next year for most civilian federal employees.
National emergencies or economic hardships can be grounds for presidents to suggest alternate rates. President Obama froze all automatic raises for three years after the recession, from 2011 to 2013. The difference, said Compa, is that Obama’s administration “respected federal workers’ rights to organize.”
Congress can override Trump’s plan to squash the pay raise. The Senate already has passed a bill calling for a 1.9 percent pay increase for federal workers, but the House version of the budget does not include a raise. If they cannot agree and do nothing, the president would get his way.
How can the federal unions fight back?
They have to “work with allies in Congress, reach out for public support and do the best they can in what’s clearly a defensive position,” Compa said. But most important, he said, the union leadership has to “communicate with the membership, mobilize the membership and rekindle the spirit of solidarity and action.”