January 17, 2002 marks the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s executive order granting federal government employees the right to organize. Sort of.
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 or Wagner Act granted many categories of workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, but excluded many others. Agricultural workers and domestic servants, for instance, were left unprotected. Government workers were another.
It was almost 30 years before President Kennedy’s order made it possible for organizations of federal employees to seek recognition and negotiate labor contracts with their employer. It was called “a Wagner Act for public employees,” but the terms were decidedly different. Federal workers are not permitted to bargain over wages and benefits, and are forbidden to strike – arguably the two most critical hallmarks of a labor organization.
Perhaps their most important power is to represent workers in disciplinary hearings. This is no small benefit. Workers who lack a union contract in the United States are “at will” employees who can be peremptorily dismissed without any investigation or hearing. Still, even this right comes with a catch.
The entire federal government sector is by law ‘right-to-work,’ meaning that any government employee can opt out of membership and dues but still demand the union’s representation in a disciplinary procedure. It should come as no surprise that the unions representing federal employees have always struggled to recruit and retain members.
There are important differences between public and private sector workers. Critics point out that citizens cannot ‘opt out’ of most public services they way they can decline a product whose labor costs render it too expensive. But that doesn’t leave them entirely without a voice. After all, while only stockholders get to vote on the CEO of General Motors, every citizen gets a vote for the president of the United States.
That may be the more important qualifier on the rights of federal and other public employees. When workers at a private firm organize, they claim their rights and powers at the expense of a private entity. When public employees do so, they claim their rights and powers at the expense of our elected representatives.
That’s not to say it’s an unreasonable claim: we have an entire bill of rights designed to limit the powers of our democratically elected representatives, lest unpopular minorities be deprived of their legitimate rights. And judging from the tenor of last year’s political debate, government workers certainly seem to be the unpopular minority du jour. It’s a shame that while taxation levels, social security, medicare and defense form the realities of our budget, the rights and livelihoods of our federal employees have become a political football.