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Federal Employee Unions Hamstring Government Reorganization Efforts

NPR reports one issue President Trump may touch on in his State of the Union address is “reorganizing the federal bureaucracy.” Even if methods for making government more effective and efficient do not come up in the State of the Union speech, however, the administration is likely to take tackle the idea in the upcoming proposed budget for fiscal year 2019.

President Trump has said that “billions and billions of dollars are being wasted on activities that are not delivering results for hardworking American taxpayers.” Inspecting federal employee collective bargaining agreements is a good first step toward reversing that.

A general provision that appears in many federal collective bargaining agreements acts as a thorn in the side of federal agencies’ ability to reorganize.

According to the laws that govern the civil service, management has the right “to determine the mission, budget, organization, number of employees, and internal security practices of the agency.” Yet, most agencies have unwisely negotiated away some of their rights to determine how the agency is run.

A provision appearing in most collective bargaining agreements is called “Reduction in Force (RIF) and Mitigation Strategies.” A RIF is agency action to reduce the size of its workforce because of reorganization, lack of work, or shortage of funds.

Most collective bargaining agreements give the federal employee unions pre-decisional input when the agency wishes to act on its management rights to determine staffing levels. This prolongs any government-wide effort to reorganize the government to make it more effective and efficient.

For example, many collective bargaining agreements require the federal agency to provide the union with a preliminary determination that the agency has decided to conduct a RIF, normally at least 15 days prior to providing a formal notice of a RIF to the union. Any RIF analysis used to come to this determination must also be handed over to the union. Then the union may submit comments regarding the agency’s preliminary decision to initiate a RIF, which the agency must consider prior to delivering a formal RIF notice.

If the agency moves forward and delivers a formal RIF notice to the union, this opens up what is known as “expedited bargaining,” which can go on for 90 days. When an agreement over the RIF cannot be made, the collective bargaining agreement outlines an impasses procedure. If either party is unsatisfied by a neutral factfinder’s decision, they can also “pursue the dispute through the statutory process.”

Then, after negotiating with the union on how the RIF will impact employees, the employer must implement strategies to minimize the impact on the agency. This is a big problem when the objective of the Trump administration to substantially reduce the size and scope of the federal government in order to make it more efficient, effective and accountable.

It is not just federal employee union collective bargaining agreements that are an obstacle to reforming the federal government. The mere presence of the union at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), a part of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, contributed to massive government waste.

An Inspector General report documents the practice of paralegals at the PATB charging over half their work hours to the billing code “Other Time.” A senior manager deemed the pay code as the “I don’t have work but I’m going to get paid” code.

Management should have addressed this waste, but agency managers did not, in part, because they understood the union collective bargaining to allow this practice and feared “being subject to [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] or union complaints for attempting to address the ‘Other Time’ issues.”

Collective bargaining negotiations by itself have been known to run up the cost of operating an agency. For over a decade, the inspector general at the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Transportation has documented how the Federal Aviation Administrator (FAA) has failed to effectively manage or control costs associated with Air Traffic Controller mid-term bargaining agreements.

Here are some of the highlights of the reports:

  • According ot the 2009 Inspector General  report: in 2003 we identified hundreds of negotiated [memoranda of understanding] that resulted in $23 million in overtime costs, $1.8 million in cash awards, $30 million in additional salary incentives, and 65,000 hours in time-off awards;
  • According to 2014 Inspector General report: FAA negotiated a [memorandum of understanding] increasing pay at three air traffic control towers located within the New York metropolitan area based on an increase in air traffic at LaGuardia airport. This agreement resulted in $1.3 million in back pay and $16 million in additional pay over 10 years;
  • According to 2014 Inspector General report: facility’s air traffic manager at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center negotiated an agreement providing 40-hour time off awards to about 440 employees for completing a required airspace redesign. The budget analysis conducted by the facility manager indicated the agreement would be cost effective. During the period covered by this agreement, the FAA incurred almost $2 million in additional salaries and benefits and over $5 million dollars in extra overtime—even though the time controllers spent controlling traffic and performing other duties did not change significantly.

It is easy to see how it is difficult to manage mid-term bargaining. Normally, federal employee collective bargaining agreements require mid-term bargaining any time management exercises its statutory right to initiate changes that affect employees’ work conditions. These collective bargaining provisions make swift changes to the federal bureaucracy impossible. For example, in the contract between the Social Security Administration and American Federation of Government Employees, the union has the right to negotiate any management changes at four different levels—National level, National Component Level, Regional, and Installation Level. And negotiations do not begin until 30 calendar days after the union receives management’s notice of a change.

There are many other wasteful and inefficient provisions in collective bargaining agreements. Like the Transportation Security Administration collective bargaining agreement gives cash rewards to employees who show up for work (Article 2, Section C1) and consider union employees for award recognition who engage in “operational challenges such as same-sex gender pat-downs.” (Article 2, Section E). And, of course, there is union official time, where taxpayers fund federal employees to perform union business instead of their civic duties, which costs over $100 million annually.

But these inefficient and wasteful provisions in union contracts should not be surprising. Federal employee unions, like all government unions, generally lobby for and negotiate collective bargaining agreements that call for more government spending. This is because bigger government means more public employees which means more potential union members and dues payments.

It is commendable that the Trump administration plans to create a better government that serves taxpayers well. But to do so, the power of federal employee unions to interfere with agency management and priority-setting needs to be checked.