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'A Travesty and a Disgrace': Trump Quietly Issues Memo That Could Abolish Union Rights for 750,000 Federal Workers

"This administration will not stop until it takes away all workers' rights to form and join a union."

President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a ceremony in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building December 20, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump on Thursday quietly issued a memo granting Defense Secretary Mark Esper the power to abolish collective bargaining rights for the Defense Department's 750,000 civilian workers, a move unions decried as part of the administration's far-reaching assault on organized labor.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) condemned the memo, which was published in the Federal Register (pdf) Thursday, as "a travesty and a disgrace."

"The administration's divide-and-conquer strategy with respect to organized labor is as disgusting as it is shameful."
—American Federation of Government Employees

The memo argues that a unionized Defense Department workforce could pose a threat to "national security" and that, if necessary, collective bargaining rights at the department should be scrapped in the interest of "protecting the American people."

"When new missions emerge or existing ones evolve, the Department of Defense requires maximum flexibility to respond to threats," the memo states. "This flexibility requires that military and civilian leadership manage their organizations to cultivate a lethal, agile force adaptive to new technologies and posture changes."

"Where collective bargaining is incompatible with these organizations' missions," the memo continues, "the Department of Defense should not be forced to sacrifice its national security mission and, instead, seek relief through third parties and administrative fora."

It is unclear whether or how Esper intends to act on his legal authority.

Larry Mishel, distinguished fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, called the White House's justification for ending collective bargaining rights at the Defense Department "atrocious."

The existence of the memo, which Trump signed on Jan. 29, was first reported by Government Executive earlier this month.

The outlet noted that "the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 includes a provision allowing the president to issue an order excluding agencies and agency subcomponents from collective bargaining rules if the rules 'cannot be applied to that agency or subdivision in a manner consistent with national security requirements.'"

Everett Kelley, AFGE's national secretary-treasurer, said in a statement that denying Defense Department employees "the collective bargaining rights guaranteed to them by law since 1962 would be a travesty—and doing it under the guise of 'national security' would be a disgrace to the sacred oath and obligation that all federal workers make to their country."

"This administration will not stop until it takes away all workers' rights to form and join a union, and we will not stop doing everything we can to prevent that from happening."
—Everett Kelley, AFGE

"This administration will not stop until it takes away all workers' rights to form and join a union," said Kelley, "and we will not stop doing everything we can to prevent that from happening."

Government Executive noted that "unionized workforces within the Defense Department vary widely."

"Civilian workers at the U.S. Coast Guard are represented by the [AFGE], as are the Defense Logistics Agency and the Defense Contract Management Agency," the outlet reported. "Blue-collar workers at military bases and depots across the country are represented by a variety of unions, and teachers at on-base schools for children of service members bargain collectively as well."

Trump and corporate-friendly officials in his administration have been attacking public- and private-sector unions since the president took office in 2017.

Last October, Politico obtained an internal memo penned in 2017 by White House domestic policy adviser James Sherk, who urged Trump "to eliminate all job protections for federal workers and a requirement that federal contractors provide paid sick leave for employees."

"The Trump administration has already acted on key recommendations in the memo," Politico reported. "For example, it has changed overtime pay calculations and put forth rules making it harder for companies to be held liable for labor violations committed by franchisees and contractors."

The memo, Politico noted, also recommended that Trump "issue an executive order eliminating employee unions at the Defense Department on the basis of national security."

In an October statement responding to Sherk's recommendations, AFGE said "the administration's divide-and-conquer strategy with respect to organized labor is as disgusting as it is shameful."

"But it won't work," the union said. "Across this country, our members and the members of every other labor union are getting educated, organized, and mobilized. As the largest union representing federal employees, AFGE will continue to resist the president's mob mentality and disrespect for the federal workforce and the work they do."

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