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Biden is good for public sector unions, but not the public sector

President Biden addresses the situation in Ukraine
The White House

As a candidate, Joe Biden pledged to be the “most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” Motivated by that, a Biden administration task force recently recommended more than five-dozen administrative actions with the purported goal of empowering public sector unions. However, after reviewing these proposals, it seems as if their focus is squarely on creating more Democratic campaign activists while ignoring ideas that could actually impact the public sector.

The White House Task Force On Worker Organizing and Empowerment, chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris, issued its initial recommendations aimed at making it easier for federal bureaucrats to unionize. Among the approximately 70 recommendations are provisions allowing union organizers to talk with bureaucrats on federal property, as well as encouraging the Office of Personnel Management to remind bureaucrats on a regular basis of their legal right to join a union.

These recommendations look like solutions in search of a problem. First, those working in the federal government already enjoy employment protection that far exceeds that generally found in the private sector, which is normally the motivation to join a union. For example, civil service rules make it notoriously difficult to fire someone for underperformance.

Second, it’s not as if this task force has altered the legality of unionizing at the federal level; bureaucrats have had this option for more than 60 years. It is true that public-sector employees were omitted from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, commonly referred to as the Wagner Act, which largely codified the legality to collectively bargain in the private sector. However, with the issuing of Executive Order 10988 by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, this privilege was extended to those working in the federal government. It could be assumed that if a bureaucrat has not yet joined a union, it is because they did not want to, not because they were prevented from doing so.

So why is the Biden administration pushing forward with this? Whatever the sincerity of President Biden’s beliefs on unions, there is no denying the relationship between public-sector unions and the Democratic Party. Union members make up a large portion of Democratic activists and campaign supporters. For example, while public-sector union members make up 0.5 percent of the population, members from the four largest public-sector service unions made up over 15 percent of the delegates to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. AFSCME, the largest public-sector union, has made no less than 97 percent of its campaign contributions to Democrats in every election cycle since 1990. Since it appears as if joining a union prompts political involvement, larger union rolls mean more potential campaign activists and campaign donors for Democrats.

If Biden truly were concerned about the public sector, there are several other actions he could take. For example, while his budget includes a proposal that would include the largest pay raise for federal bureaucrats in 20 years, there are other options at his disposal. Non-citizens are prevented from obtaining most jobs in the public sector. At a time when hiring across the country is challenging, particularly for immigrants, reducing or eliminating this citizenship requirement would allow for a far more dynamic public sector. Additionally, since these non-citizens still would be unable to vote in federal elections and must earn their jobs through merit, such an action should not be viewed as entirely political. 

The Biden administration also could initiate action to reduce the number of political appointees. As it currently stands, in a federal bureaucracy of 2 million people, 1,200 require Senate confirmation, while an additional 2,800 are appointed. The number of Senate-confirmed positions grew by almost 60 percent from 1960 to 2016, while the confirmation processes have grown longer during each administration. This leaves serious questions concerning the government’s ability to function. Converting these appointments to career roles may be one way to increase government effectiveness. 

However, with this administration simply focused on swelling the membership ranks of unions, its actions look to be guided far more by politics than by good governance.

Michael E. Bednarczuk, Ph.D., is a professor of public administration at Randall University and director of its Masters of Public Administration program. He is working on a book about collective bargaining and the public sector. Follow him on Twitter @mebednarczuk.

Tags Civil Service Joe Biden Labor relations Public-sector trade union Trade unions

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