Unions representing federal workers on Saturday declared victory in what they have described as an assault by the Trump administration after a federal judge struck down key provisions of a set of executive orders aimed at making it easier to fire employees and weaken their representation.
The ruling, by U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in Washington, was a setback to the White House’s efforts to rein in federal unions, which have retained significant power over working conditions even as private-sector unions are in decline.
“It’s a big win for us,” said David Borer, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees. With 750,000 members, the AFGE was the largest of about a dozen unions to sue the administration to block the new rules affecting 2.1 million civil servants.
The AFGE and the other plaintiffs plan to demand that the administration immediately reverse the new rules, which were issued just before Memorial Day and had begun to take effect in several agencies.
In a 122-page decision, Jackson — nominated to the bench by President Barack Obama in 2013 — took issue with key elements of each order and immediately barred the administration from enacting them.
“They’re going to have to unwind what they’ve already done,” Borer said.
The White House on Saturday referred questions to the Justice Department, which said in a statement that it is reviewing the decision and considering its next steps.
President Trump had sought with three executive orders to broaden his get-tough approach to a federal bureaucracy he has called unaccountable and wasteful.
The rules restricted the use of “official time” — on-duty time that union officials can spend representing their members in grievances and on other issues. The new rules limited the issues that could be bargained over in union negotiations. And they rolled back the rights of workers deemed to be poor performers to appeal disciplinary action against them.
When the White House announced the new rules, Andrew Bremberg, head of the president’s Domestic Policy Council, said the unions are major contributors to driving up costs and have paralyzed agencies’ efforts to discipline poor performers and make the government more accountable to taxpayers.
“These executive orders make it easier for agencies to remove poor-performing employees and ensure that taxpayer dollars are more efficiently used,” Bremberg said at the time. The president, he noted, called on Congress during his State of the Union address “to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove those that undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”
But Jackson found that the president lacks the authority to impose many of the measures, which she said interfered with the right to good-faith collective bargaining that Congress laid out for civil servants in 1978.
In her decision, the judge wrote: “While . . . the President has the authority to issue executive orders that carry the force of law with respect to federal labor relations, no such orders can operate to eviscerate the right to bargain collectively as envisioned” in the federal labor-management relations statute.
Under the statute, she added, “the collective bargaining process is not a cutthroat death match.”