Do unions have a federal future?

Following the Obama-era example, maybe it's time for another beer summit — this time between the Trump administration and federal union leaders?

“You’re anti-union!” the recent Yale grad exclaims to me, as if he’s discovered a hidden truth that somehow trumps my side of our debate.

“You think so?” I reply. I whip out my wallet, withdraw my union card, and hold it out in front of his face. “Where do you pay dues,” I ask.

As a card-carrying, dues-paying member of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, I’m hardly anti-union. I was also once a member of the long-defunct International Typographical Union and walked a picket line for a few weeks. But this conversation, which took place several years ago, comes back to me as the altercation between the Trump administration and federal employee unions reaches a boiling point.

My old union, the ITU, is long gone. The march of technology that shoved the Linotype machine into history pretty much wiped out all of the newspaper crafts on the floors below newsrooms.

The type of work done by federal employee union members won’t disappear, nor will the organizations at which they work.  As long as Executive Order 10988 holds — no administration has tried to rescinded it — unions will be a part of the federal employment landscape. Later executive orders from two Republican presidents strengthened EO 10988 and deepened the tie-in of federal unions to the government.

Then, the whole apparatus was enshrined in statute with the Carter administration-led Civil Service Reform Act. The Federal Labor Relations Authority provides an excellent and detailed history of this change.

An irony of labor relations is that lack of trust in management can lead people to want to unionize, yet mutual trust can make for good union-management relations. What’s going on now is a lack of trust, leavened by political differences, and a failure to communicate.

From the unions’ viewpoint, the Trump administration is throwing everything it can at them —  imposition of management fiats in place of bargaining, kicking unions out of federal property and restricting “official” time, forcing review and discipline procedures to the most restrictive standards. To administration officials, it looks as if union members thwart every initiative, waste time and have steadily eroded every tenet of good personnel practice and procedure.

Several of the unions have launched or joined lawsuits to stop the White House’s May 25 executive orders. In matters like this, going to court reflects a failure. It almost reminds me of the immigration debate, in that everyone is talking at cross purposes.

This all needs to be taken down a notch. The administration needs to understand that official time is at best a trivial contributor to government inefficiency, while the unions need to acknowledge that too often, performance improvement times do take too long. People are more willing to die on a small hilltop than to meet at the top and talk things over.

Remember when President Barack Obama convened a picnic table sit-down over beer between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Cambridge, Massachusetts Police Sgt. James Crowley? Gates, an African-American, was arrested for breaking into his own house when he forgot the key. The president on that occasion initially did not help. He threw incendiary words out over the situation and racial relations in general, then expressed regret for them. Publicity stunt though it may have been, the “beer summit” actually produced mutual and real understanding between Gates and Crowley, who is white. They reportedly remain friends to this day.

Someday I’ll tell you the story of how I became friends with a guy I thought was trying to run me over with his SUV when I was out for a neighborhood run. He didn’t like my gesture in response, yet understandings are possible.

American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney ought to have a beer together, no tweets allowed.

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