One labor union’s perspective on the Biden administration’s latest moves to encourage union participation

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The Biden administration has made clear it wants to maximize union participation throughout the American workforce, both public and private. Last month, it took new steps meant to encourage it within the federal workforce specifically. Among other steps, the new guidelines tell agencies they should inform new hires about whether their new job is represented by a union, and which one it is. Matt Biggs is president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. He joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to talk more about what the new guidelines mean for federal labor unions.

Interview transcript:

Jared Serbu: And, Matt, I think the place I want to start with this is tell me exactly what the value of this new announcement from Vice President Harris and Secretary Walsh is because it’s difficult from the outside to tell whether the value is mainly in messaging, just communicating to the workforce, that union representation is good, or there are specific things in the guidelines that they laid out that will actually make a meaningful change in the onboarding process, because that’s where most of this is focused I think.

Matt Biggs: Well, I mean, I guess it’s important to point out the April executive order on worker organizing, I mean, it pertains to all sectors of the workforce, right. It’s aimed at growing union membership in the public sector, the federal sector and the private sector. But it also made a point to say that federal agencies, the federal government should lead by example. And the importance of it is the following. And President Biden, to his credit, he understands, as he’s understood this for many, many years, a strong middle class is directly linked to a strong membership overall. In this country, middle class grows when unions grow, and union membership grows. And I think that’s the point of the executive order. With a growing union membership in this country, you will also have a growing and strong middle class. That means better wages, better benefits, better working conditions, these kinds of things. So I think Secretary Walsh and Vice President Harris, they led with their recommendations to President Biden, their report to President Biden with the federal sector, so which obviously is the easiest sector for them to impact immediately, given that the president of the United States is essentially the boss of all federal employees. So I think that’s that’s the important link here is that the the more union members you have in this country, the more union density in all sectors, including the federal sector, the stronger you have, the stronger your middle class is.

Jared Serbu: As to these specific guidelines ,at least the language that OPM used is that for example, agencies should include in their job opportunity announcements, whether it’s a union position, if they’re not already doing so. And again, if they’re not already doing so, identify the union. A lot of those caveats in the language. And that’s really my question, as far as the agencies that you’re involved in bargaining with and that you have representation over, are these sorts of things that are already kind of common practice that are just now being codified? Are these real changes?

Matt Biggs: They’re real changes in certain agencies. For example, the Social Security Administration, that has been an anti-union agency, and it goes all the way back to President Bush. But they were anti-union all through the Obama administration. And then President Trump, of course, who himself wanted to just bust unions all throughout the federal sector. So Social Security it’s meaningful, that they have to change the way they deal with their unions and with their workers, right. They have to notify them whether they’re in a bargaining unit or not, they have to notify them, give them contact information, for example, for the unions. So Social Security. Executive Office of Immigration Review, that’s another one that just literally tried to bust our union. They didn’t even go through the executive order, they just declared everybody as a supervisor and just tried to bust the union. So for those agencies, it’s meaningful. For example, NAVSEA, where we represent workers for the Navy public shipyards. NAVSEA, to their credit, they understand the benefit of having a partnership and working hand in hand with their union. So those kinds of things were already occurring there to their credit and continued for the most part throughout the Trump administration. So it is meaningful in certain agencies like Social Security, the Executive Office of Immigration Review, and then in other places, it just reinforces the good work that management and the unions are doing together.

Jared Serbu: As you pointed out, a lot of variability in terms of how union friendly the federal government is, depending on who the president is at any given time. These things could hypothetically all be reversed by a new administration. Are these changes sufficiently important that Congress ought to look at potentially putting at least some of them in statute?

Matt Biggs: Yeah, ideally, that would be the case, right. I mean, as a labor union, we would prefer that these kind of measures would be put into law, pass through each, through the House, through the Senate and signed into law. Because, as we’ve seen with the past Trump administration, we could get an anti-labor president, and they could just reverse these with a stroke of a pen. And not only do that, put in place unilaterally executive orders that literally whose intent is to destroy unions in the federal sector. So yeah, ideally we would want this in law. But given the current makeup of the Congress, I mean, you still need 60 votes in the Senate to get anything done. How practical is that? It’s not real practical. I mean, we do have a chairman of the committee that oversees the federal workforce, she’s very pro-labor, as she should be. And we give her credit for that. And the same in the Senate. But the problem is, you can get things through the House, there are there are even labor friendly Republicans in the House that would vote for things like that not only vote for them, co-sponsor them, but you can’t get it through the Senate. So it’s really not practical at this point, unfortunately.

Jared Serbu: And getting back to your point about the government leading by example as an employer. Again, whether the government is hostile or friendly to unions depends almost entirely on who the president is at any given time. I’m just curious whether that union friendly attitude, translates very well into the private sector, because my sense is there’s if not outright hostility between labor and management on the private side, at least usually some constructive tension let’s say. I mean, are you ever going to have a situation where the federal government is going to be able to influence, again by example, a private sector employer to do these sorts of union friendly things without forcing them to?

Matt Biggs: Well here again, there is legislation. The private sector is quite different than than the public sector in the federal sector when it comes to unions, particularly organizing. But there is legislation that did pass the House, it’s called the PRO Act, protecting the right to Organize Act, that will put in place into law measures that will level the playing field between workers and employers in the private sector. Our biggest local, for example, is a local that represents upwards of 20,000 Boeing workers. And it’s difficult as a union when you go up against a multibillion dollar corporation like Boeing. They have a lot of resources, and they use them to impact our negotiations, and even our organizing drives. We got an organizing drive going on in Southern California, and Boeing is actively spending tons and tons of money to boast that both side organizing drive. It’s a lot different. In order to impact the private sector, we would need to pass legislation like the PRO Act, which President Biden supports as well.

Jared Serbu: And last thing Matt, in this guidance from OPM, they make quite clear that there are other steps that they plan on taking in the future to kind of further the president’s pro-union agenda. What sorts of things would you be urging the administration to do beyond the steps that they rolled out last month?

Matt Biggs: Well, we did give them a set of recommendations. They asked all the unions for some of their input on what recommendations they should present the President Biden. And one of them we would like to see is putting back in place the partnership executive order that President Clinton had in place, and then President Obama. We would like to see that, that sets a tone all throughout the federal government. Like I said, at NAVSEA and at DoD, unions are part of the part of the culture there, and the unions are part of getting the work done efficiently and effectively for our fighting women and men. But that’s not the case in all agencies. So we do think we need an executive order put in place to reestablish the partnerships all throughout the the federal government. I know President Obama, if I’m remembering correctly, when he became president, it wasn’t until December that his administration put forward the executive order in partnership. So if by the end of the year something like that could come out of the administration and we could get that rolling, we think that’d be a good thing.

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