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Congress Takes Aim at Union Shop, Civil Service, Prevailing Wage

February 10, 2017 
By Steven Wishnia

Washington, DC – Congress has begun taking up a raft of bills intended to obliterate long-established American workers’ rights. On Jan. 31, Reps. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and Steve King (R-Iowa) introduced a bill that would outlaw the union shop nationwide, prohibiting unions from collecting any fees from nonmembers they are required to represent.

Two separate bills have been introduced to repeal or suspend the Davis-Bacon Act, the 1931 law requiring union-scale “prevailing wages” on federally funded construction projects. On Feb. 3, the House passed a resolution to rescind former President Barack Obama’s executive order barring federal agencies from hiring contractors who “willfully and repeatedly” violate wage and safety laws. And Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) is planning to reintroduce a bill that would eliminate civil-service protections for future federal workers, allowing them to be fired or suspended “for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all.”

However, Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project, believes these bills are unlikely to pass—“not as long as there’s a filibuster in the Senate.” She calls them “priority messages.” Their sponsors “are demonstrating to their corporate donors what they’re willing to push,” she says.

On the other hand, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told the Associated Press that when he met with Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 27, they’d talked about how the Trump administration “may take bits and pieces of what we did” and “apply it at the national level.” The administration is looking at combining his drastic restrictions on collective bargaining by public employees with his “civil service reforms,” Walker added, “so they can hire and fire based on merit and pay based on performance.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) “will vigorously defend vital safeguards like Davis-Bacon,” spokesperson Marisa Kaufman told LaborPress. He “will staunchly oppose any efforts to undermine” workers’ rights to be in a union  and to bargain collectively, she added, but did not say explicitly whether that would include a filibuster.

So far, the House has passed three anti-labor measures, including the resolution to rescind the Obama executive order. On Jan. 5, it voted along party lines to pass an appropriations-bill amendment to reinstate the 1876 “Holman rule,” which allows Congress to reduce individual federal employees’ salaries or eliminate their jobs. On Jan. 3, it passed the Ensuring VA Employees Accountability Act by voice vote after 40 minutes of debate. Sponsored by Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), it would require the Veterans Administration to retain records of workers being reprimanded as long as they’re employed—“even if that reprimand was a result of whistleblowing or some form of retaliation,” the American Federation of Government Employees notes.

None of those three measures has advanced in the Senate.

The proposed union-shop ban, the National Right to Work Act, was introduced by Reps. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and Steve King (R-Iowa) on Feb. 1. It would delete the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act that allow union-shop contracts. “Americans overwhelmingly believe that every worker and their employer should have the power to negotiate the terms of their employment,” King said in a statement, but the union shop replaces that with “forced unionization” and “monopoly bargaining.”

“This legislation clearly has one purpose: to undermine the capacity of unions to protect workers and defund them,” Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the ranking minority members on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, responded in a joint statement. They called the bill “a backdoor attempt at bankrupting labor unions, forcing them to provide services for people who do not pay dues.”

Wilson is best known as the House member who shouted “You lie” at President Barack Obama during his September 2009 address to Congress on health care. King is arguably the most rabidly anti-immigrant member of Congress. In 2013, he told the far-right Web site Newsmax that for every undocumented immigrant who’s a valedictorian, there are another 100 who have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” Neither one responded to phone and email messages from LaborPress.

King, along with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has also introduced a bill to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act. Having the federal government dictate wages, King said, has increased construction costs by 20%, when “all that should be required is for the employer and the employee to agree on salary and benefits.” He also argued that prevailing wage was “the last Jim Crow Law left in America to keep African Americans out of the Labor force in New York.”

One of the five flags King displays on his office desk in Washington is a Confederate banner.

A few days earlier, on Jan. 24, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill to suspend the Davis-Bacon Act for all federal highway construction contracts. Its “onerous wage requirements,” he told the Senate, are “eliminating decent-paying construction jobs,” and force the federal government to spend almost 10% of its $23 billion construction budget “on above-market-rate labor costs.” Unions, he said, “are able to leverage their clout with federal bureaucrats” to inflate the prevailing wage, while his bill, dubbed the Transportation Investment Recalibration to Equality Act, would “return wage determinations for federal transportation projects where they belong—the market.”

Flake did not respond to a LaborPress question about how the bill would create “decent-paying jobs” when its stated intent is to lower wages. And, according to the Laborers’ International Union of North America, prevailing wage on federally funded construction projects in Arizona “is a little more than $15 an hour,” union President Terry O’Sullivan said in a statement Jan. 26. “Yet, as he drives by in air-conditioned comfort, Senator Flake thinks the working-class builders he sees toiling in 100-degree heat are overpaid for their backbreaking labor.”

Two other bills would make it easier to fire federal workers. The Modern Employment Reform and Transformation Act of 2017, introduced by Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), would let agency heads fire workers simply by giving them one to three weeks’ written notice of their offense. The worker would have one week to appeal, and appeals would be automatically denied “if the decision is supported by substantial evidence.”

The Promote Accountability and Government Efficiency Act, which House Budget Committee vice-chair Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) is planning to introduce by the end of March, is much farther-reaching. It would make federal workers hired in the future “at will” employees who could be fired “without notice or right to appeal.”

The bill would deny raises to federal workers whose performance is evaluated as “fully successful,” a 3 on the 5-point scale used, instead of the higher ratings of “exceeds fully successful” or “outstanding.” It would also prohibit workers from engaging in union-related activity during the workday or on government property.

AFGE called the bill “a venomous piece of legislation,” with National President J. David Cox Sr. saying in a statement that it should be called “the Promote Fear and Political Allegiance Act, since it would give political appointees and their subordinates unchecked authority to target workers and politicize the civil service.” Without the civil-service protections in place since 1883, Cox said, workers would be too scared to report mismanagement or wasteful spending.

“When political firing prohibitions were first implemented a century or two ago, there weren’t the whistleblower and anti-discrimination protections that we have now,” Rokita told LaborPress. “This bill is about rewarding and incentivizing good federal employees, and holding those who underperform accountable in the same efficient way under which the vast majority of the American workforce operates.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told the Associated Press earlier this month that he didn’t think Congressional Republicans would want to allow wholesale dismissals of federal employees. “Most people understand that if he does that in a Republican administration, it can also happen in a Democratic administration,” he said.

While these bills may not go anywhere, says Judy Conti, “they frame very starkly what the right wing thinks about the right to fair pay, the right to have a voice in the workplace.”

A Feb. 2 statement by Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chair of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, reflects that attitude. After National Labor Relations Board general counsel Richard Griffin issued a memo saying that football players at private colleges and universities are legally employees and therefore entitled to unionize, Foxx and labor subcommittee chair Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) said he should resign “if he is unwilling to set aside his extreme and partisan agenda.”

The memo “puts the interests of union leaders over America’s students,” they said in a joint statement. “It’s an affront to hard-working Americans for Griffin to double down on his extreme, Big Labor agenda, especially at a time when a new president is entitled to move the NLRB in a new direction.”

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