In the United States, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, citizens began forming unions to fight for their freedom and human dignity while at work. The times were not that far removed from the American Revolution and many had fought in the Revolution or had fathers who had done so. The nature of work was changing and supposedly free men were not ready to accept the way work was structured in the newly forming industrial factories. Many employees felt that they were being treated as “wage slaves”. Unions were being formed to push back against the unrestrained power of management at work and to remind employers that those working for them are human beings and deserving of human dignity and respect. Is there anything more patriotic and American than that? After all, the United States was formed when the citizens of relatively powerless separate colonies united together to fight collectively for their rights. Labor Day is a celebration of those who have to work for a living and to celebrate the ability to unite together to advance their rights collectively.
On this Labor Day federal employee Union members will also be celebrating a legal victory. On August 25, 2018 Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson issued a ruling that blocked the implementation of major portions of three Executive Orders issued by President Trump on May 25, 2018. Executive Order 13836 would have severely restricted federal unions right to bargain collectively. Executive Order 13839 would allow for the firing of federal employees while severely limiting their right to appeal the charges against them. Executive Order 13837 would have severely restricted the time Union officials could use to represent bargaining unit members while “on the clock”.
Executive Order 13837 relabeled official time as “taxpayer funded union time” in order to misleadingly portray it as being something other than agency work. The use of official time by employee union representatives is a favorite target of pro-corporate/anti-worker interest groups. According to their thinking, in the case of federal workers, employees on official time are working for the union – not the government agency. But that is not the case.
Union representatives on official time are not employees of some third party organization. Union officials are employees of the government agency who act as representatives for their fellow employees. In some cases, employees seeking assistance from Union representatives may not even be Union members. The Federal Service Labor Management Relations Act (FSLMRA) gave most federal employees the right to bargain collectively but it required an open shop. In other words, if employees voted to be represented by a Union, employees could not be required to become a member of the Union. Nevertheless, the Union was required to represent all the employees in the bargaining unit whether an employee was a Union member or not.
Unlike in the private sector, federal employees’ employer is the federal government and they are therefore entitled to some of the protections guarantied under the United States Constitution from their employer. One of those rights is due process. So, for example, if a federal employee is charged with some work infraction, because his/her employer is the federal government s/he must be given due process. Someone in the agency must represent the employee in whatever appellate system is established to provide the required due process. The work of the Union representative, in this case, is not the work of some outside entity. It is agency work. Someone has to do it and those who wrote the FSLMRA determined that it would be best if, instead of having the agency appoint the employee’s representative (who would not necessarily act solely in the interest of the employee), the employee would get to choose who his or her representative is. This is done democratically because that is how Union representatives are selected.
Employees have the right to determine if they will form a Union or not through a democratic election. If a Union is elected, Union members then vote on who their representatives are. When you celebrate Labor Day this year remember that there is probably no better example of democracy than a Union meeting and Union elections and there is probably no better reflection of what our revolutionary forefathers fought for than protecting one’s human rights through the collective power of a Union.