Social security workers call new Trump administration contract ‘union-busting’

Michael Sainato
Photograph: Tom Mihalek/Reuters

Workers at the Social Security Administration (SSA) say that the Trump administration has imposed a new contract on their 45,000 workers that could effectively shut down their union and are warning that the same thing could be tried elsewhere in the federal government as part of a crackdown on the labor movement.

A federal panel, consisting mainly of Trump-appointed members, issued a decision in May to impose a new union contract for the 45,000 federal employees at the SSA. The move came despite a federal judge’s decision last year to strike down most provisions in similarly issued orders for violating collective bargaining rights for federal employees.

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The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), says the new contract the panel decided to impose chronically hampers its work at the agency, which mainly pays out retirement and disability benefits. The SSA is the first major federal agency up for a union contract renewal since Donald Trump’s executive orders were issued last year, and it is the AFGE’s second-largest bargaining unit.

“If the agency is successful in implementing this panel order, it will decimate our ability to represent workers all over the country,” said Rich Couture, an agency employee for more than 30 years and the union’s chief negotiator.

The provisions in the new contract will reduce the time allotted to SSA employees for union activity from 250,000 hours annually to 50,000 hours and ban all workers from using government property to conduct union activities, such as office spaces and government emails and holding files on government computers or in offices. It will also grant management the discretion to eliminate remote work.

“It’s union-busting,” said Damion Barco, a SSA employee in Maryland. “The official time is what we need to have a successful and productive union. A union is only effective if you can supply it.”

The contract will also eliminate over 1,400 memorandums of understanding that were agreed upon in collective bargaining over the past decade.

According to AFGE, the union is currently evaluating all of their legal options and plans to take the matter to court.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said David Cann, director of bargaining for the AFGE. “As we’ve been in negotiation with the Trump administration, we’ve seen a level of hostility toward labor unions that is unique and more coordinated from what we’ve seen with other administrations, even Republican administrations that are philosophically opposed to the mission of labor and the empowerment of workers.”

Federal workers are not legally permitted to strike, but the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act mandates collective bargaining and union rights for federal employees. Federal employees at the SSA, who also conduct work as union representatives, explained they will no longer have the time or resources to continue exercising those rights.

“Once Trump signed those executive orders, all employees who were union representatives lost the right to hold files in their offices, lost the right to represent employees unless we used our own personal leave or leave without pay and even with that management wouldn’t approve leave to represent people,” said Sherry Jackson, a social security field office employee in Connecticut who also works as a union representative in her region.

SSA workers noted the new provisions in the union contract will further hurt working conditions at the agency, which they say is already suffering low morale.

Jackson said: “If the government is going to be a premier place to work, employees are going to have to be treated more than indentured servants and have working conditions comparable to private industry, where freedom is not going to be restricted by a few, or otherwise the government is not going to be able to hold and sustain employees.”

Judith Browning, a social security employee in West Virginia, said the provisions will prevent whistleblowers from coming forward, as they will no longer have union protection, provide management with authoritarian power over employees, and set a dangerous anti-union precedent for all federal employees. In 2013, workers at Browning’s office exposed the biggest social security disability fraud scheme in US history. She noted the only time she has now to assist workers with union representation is on the weekends at home, taking time away from her family.

“President Trump issued the executive orders targeting our union in order to target all federal employees,” Browning said. “Trump is going to allow management to basically fire us for no reason. We’re an at-will agency now. It gives the discretion to the supervisors to terminate employees without representation, without a reason.”

The SSA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.