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Senators mount defense of DoD collective bargaining amid recent Trump threat

This story was updated at 11:45 a.m. on Tuesday, March 3 to reflect additional comments from a group of five senators.

A bipartisan group of senators has urged the president to reconsider the memo he issued to Pentagon officials last month, which gave them sweeping authority to strip collective bargaining rights from the Defense Department civilian workforce.

The memo, which the Executive Office of the President published earlier this month, gives the defense secretary and other department officials the authority to exclude DoD civilian employees from the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations statute, the 1978 law that generally allows unions to bargain with agencies on behalf of groups of federal employees.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, the senators mounted a strong defense of collective bargaining among DoD civilian employees.

“The Department of Defense has a history of working with labor unions that represent the interests of employees,” senators wrote in a Feb. 27 letter. “We encourage the department to continue this cooperation and to preserve longstanding protections for federal employees. Allowing any department or subcomponent to exempt itself for poorly defined reasons runs contrary to these protections.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), along with Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Tim Kaine and Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Gary Peters (D-Mich.), are among those urging the president to reverse course.

Collective bargaining in the federal sector is in the public interest, they argued.

And though the senators acknowledged the president could, per the 1978 labor-management relations statute, exempt certain employees from bargaining for national security reasons, these exemptions weren’t meant to apply to an entire department “as a sweeping declaration,” they said.

“We all agree that the Department of Defense requires flexibility to respond to the challenges that our nation faces,” the senators wrote. “However, collective bargaining is not only compatible with this needed flexibility but is also a key component in preserving flexibility by giving employees a voice in the system and providing avenues for management to receive feedback.”

No other president has issued a blanket exemption from collective bargaining to DoD employees, the senators added.

“Previous use of this authority has been as narrowly crafted as possible,” the letter reads. “Any attempts to broadly exempt agencies or subdivisions that have been operating successfully would run contrary to the intent of the authority and successful practice. Any future exemptions of new agencies or subdivisions should be consistent with prior uses of the exemption for national security purposes.”

A second group of senators have expressed similar concerns over the president’s January memo and urged Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in writing, to confirm he wouldn’t implement it.

“The DoD’s unionized civilian workforce provides key support to the DoD’s mission and the military forces that carry it out, and stripping away these workers’ rights would result in profound damage to them  and to the DoD’s national security mission,” the senators wrote in a Feb. 28 letter to Esper.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) are part of the second group of congressional members who have raised criticism.

Esper brushed off the concerns over the memo at a House Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this week.

He said he didn’t ask for the authority to exclude civilian employees from collective bargaining. When asked what had prompted the release and publication of the memo now, Esper said he didn’t know.

“Just because I can’t recall an issue right now doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist,” he said. “That’s why I think the prudent thing for me is to wait to see what the analysis is that comes up from my staff and what they’re looking at and make an assessment from there based on whatever recommendations are made.”

According to the president’s memo, Esper must publish any decisions to exclude certain factions of the DoD civilian workforce in the Federal Register.

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