Under new Biden initiative, agencies will do more to educate employees about collective bargaining

The Biden administration wants agencies to do more to highlight the collective bargaining rights federal employees have in government — and better publicize their options for becoming active union members if they choose.

The Office of Personnel Management issued new guidance Wednesday urging agencies to inform prospective employees, new hires and current federal workers about their collective bargaining rights and details on the labor unions at their organizations.

OPM announced the new actions at an event at the White House with Vice President Kamala Harris, who said the administration strived to remove barriers to organizing in the federal government and ultimately hoped to become “the most pro-union administration in the history of America.”

“Being the largest employer in the nation — I think people sometimes forget that — the federal government has a responsibility to lead by example when it comes to labor rights and to make sure that all federal jobs are good jobs,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said at Wednesday’s event, which included Harris, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and a roundtable of federal employees.

First, OPM issued guidance urging agencies to inform prospective employees and new hires about the collective bargaining status and union affiliation associated with each position — and include that information in job announcements.

Agencies should also provide these details to new hires during the orientation process and make information available on how employees can become dues-paying members of their unions, OPM added.

“We want to ensure that job applicants and new employees receive this information about their rights on day one,” Ahuja said.

Some agencies already publicize this information in their job announcements, but there’s no current requirement to do so, OPM said.

Second, OPM issued another piece of guidance urging agencies to remind current employees of their rights under the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Act on a quarterly or biannual basis.

That information should explain how employees can become active-duty union members and include contact information for representatives at their local bargaining unit, OPM said.

“Every federal employee should know their bargaining rights, how to contact their union and where to find this information,” Ahuja said. “I know this sounds all very basic and straightforward, but these are things we want to make sure are happening across federal government.”

In its guidance, OPM acknowledged the law requires agencies remain neutral on union organizing. But it doesn’t prohibit agencies from “providing certain information to employees or removing certain obstacles that might inhibit a union’s ability to exercise its rights under the law,” the guidance reads.

Wednesday’s actions stem from an executive order President Joe Biden signed back in April, which created a new White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment. Both Harris and Walsh are co-chairmen of the task force.

The group is exploring how government can mobilize its resources and empower workers — both in the public and private sectors — to unionize. It will issue a report to the president later this week with more recommendations, Walsh said at Wednesday’s event.

About 1.2 million federal employees, or a little more than half of the government’s 2.1 million non-postal workers, are part of one of 2,000 local bargaining units, according to White House data.

Employees, however, don’t have to be dues-paying members, but federal unions are required to represent every person in the bargaining unit. The White House estimates some 835,000 federal employees fall into this category and are not dues-paying members.

OPM said it often hears from federal employees who don’t know they’re in a bargaining unit.

“The right to organize is sacrosanct,” Ahuja said. “It empowers workers with their collective voice and ensures that they are treated with dignity and respect in the workplace. It gives them a seat at the table to demand fair pay and benefits for their work and safe working conditions. So many low-wage occupations that lack protections for workers are held by people of color and historically disadvantaged communities.”

Harris said the actions the administration took Wednesday should set an example for other sectors and workplaces.

“We know that this effort is going to impact a lot of people,” she said. “But we also know that by example we can hopefully encourage all workplaces and all industries to look at what is in the best interest of productivity, in the best interest of morale and in the best interest, of course, of valuing the dignity of work.”

Wednesday’s announcement from the Biden administration represents a stark shift from the approach of the previous administration.

Federal unions spent much of the Trump administration fighting a trio of executive orders, among other actions, that ultimately challenged their ability to represent their bargaining unit members.

The orders cut official time, limited collective bargaining and removed labor organizations from government office space. Biden rescinded the orders within his first few days in office.

The American Federation of Government Employees acknowledged those fights from the last four years and was quick to praise the Biden administration’s latest actions.

“As workers across the country find their voices, exercise their power and win transformational victories in a historic month of labor activism, we applaud the steps that the Biden administration is taking today to roll back attacks on labor unions, help federal employees understand their union rights and support them in exercising those rights,” Everett Kelley, AFGE national president, said Wednesday in a statement.

AFGE, along with the National Treasury Employees Union and National Federation of Federal Employees, had members participate in Wednesday’s roundtable with administration leadership, according to pool reports. The roundtable itself wasn’t open to press.

For NTEU, making collective bargaining information more readily available should help attract mission-focused talent to federal agencies.

“There is no doubt that the initiatives announced today by the task force will give employees a stronger voice in the federal workplace,” Tony Reardon, NTEU’s national president, said in a statement. “Increasing transparency and giving new and existing employees more information about their collective bargaining rights will improve the professional lives of hundreds of thousands of federal workers across the country. Strong unions help agencies more effectively serve the American public with a workforce that is empowered to speak up for positive changes and blow the whistle on wrongdoing.”

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