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Democrats wage uphill battle against bill targeting federal-union representatives

THURSDAY, MARCH 9, 2017, 9:25 A.M.

WASHINGTON – House Democrats were resolute – and loquacious – but were unable to derail the latest Republican move to significantly weaken federal labor unions.

After seemingly endless discussion Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was poised to advance legislation designed to undermine “official time.” It permits union representatives to engage in certain actions while on the government’s payroll. Those actions, by the way, benefit not just union members, but all agency workers, agencies generally and ultimately taxpayers.

The committee meeting began at 10 a.m. and recessed just before 8 p.m., with time out for an afternoon subcommittee hearing on the Internal Revenue Service. Committee members, tired from a long day, planned to vote on Thursday.

Much of the day centered on Rep. Jody Hice’s, R-Ga., bill that would prohibit labor leaders who spend at least 80 percent of their time on union-related activities from counting that time toward retirement. This backdoor approach would not directly kill official time, but the cut in compensation would strongly deter participation by union leaders, leaving official time seriously wounded.

Republicans have long targeted official time and their chances for success are better now than ever with President Donald Trump in office. The Senate, however, would still have to pass the bill, where a Democratic filibuster could stop it.

Much of the protracted, albeit polite, committee debate focused on what is allowed under official time, with Democrats proposing several amendments designed to blunt the bill’s impact. They pushed the importance of official time to issues Republicans and Democrats hold dear, such as the protection of whistleblowers and service to veterans.

Hice, however, framed official time as “the American taxpayer is forced to subsidize federal employee unions.” He talked about feds picketing while on official time, though neither he nor his office provided any examples. Hice spoke about some Department of Veterans Affairs health care employees spending “all their time engaged in union business … they should not earn federal retirement benefits as though they had been executing the business of the agency.”

This argument ignores how official time advances agency business. For example, union representatives use official time to participate in the labor-management forums created by President Barack Obama’s 2009 executive order. The forums are designed to foster labor/management collaboration “to deliver the highest quality services to the American people.”

There was confusion among members over how the 80 percent would be calculated. One interpretation of the bill’s language indicates that labor leaders spending that portion of a workday discussing ways to deliver high quality service with management would not get any credit for that time toward retirement. Another section indicates this would not take effect until after 365 days of service, but then remain in effect indefinitely.

Talks about agency service levels go well beyond a narrow definition of “union business.” It’s also worth noting, as Democrats did repeatedly, that internal union business, like soliciting members or holding union meetings, is already excluded from official time.

But official time does cover working with whistleblowers and enhancing working conditions for veterans, two issues members of Congress like to promote. Democrats offered a long series of amendments that would exclude official time for those and other activities from the 80 percent rule in an attempt to defeat the impact of the legislation.

“I am certain that my colleagues do not intend to disadvantage whistleblowers,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., said in defense of his whistleblower amendment. “Unfortunately, the effect of their concerted attacks on unions and civil service protections would be to strip whistleblowers of their advocates in the workplace – their union.”

Outside allies rallied in support of the Democrats’ arguments. Union leaders have been in the forefront.

“Some Republicans in Congress are perpetuating lies about official time,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “They are purposely misleading people about what official time is. In particular, they are trying to convince folks that official time is used for internal union business and political activity, when it simply is not used for those purposes. Now they are trying to take away workers’ retirement security because they served as a Union representative. This legislation is vindictive and wrong.”

The Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy organization, voiced “concern over the threat to whistleblower rights” presented by Hice’s legislation in a letter to committee leaders. “Union stewards are essential foot soldiers on the front lines to (protect) whistleblowing members’ anti-retaliation rights.”

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights also wrote in opposition. “The use of official time by union representatives continues to play a significant role in advancing the rights and interests of all workers in the workplace and making the federal government more efficient, effective, and responsive to the needs of its employees,” the Leadership Conference said. “But this legislation would ruthlessly strip away this critical tool, to the detriment of all workers, particularly women and people of color.”

There were plenty of good-sense arguments like these against the legislation, but they did not sway the majority Republicans.