White House Swells Federal Union Ranks – But at What Cost?


Originally published in RealClear Politics.

The number of federal employees belonging to a union jumped by 20%, or nearly 80,000 individuals, in just one year, according to data recently touted by the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment. Don’t let the name fool you. As a rise in federal employees seeking legal representation shows, the task force has helped funnel these employees into a system that empowers union officials, not workers.

Created just three months into Joe Biden’s presidency, the task force had in its sights 300,000 federal employees who could have joined a union but hadn’t done so. Biden approved its nearly 70 recommendations to “reduce barriers to worker organizing” last year.

These proposals prompted more than 100 agency initiatives, including a taxpayer-funded Department of Labor marketing campaign promoting resources “about the union advantage and examples of successful organizing” and policy changes in other agencies “enabling workers to talk with and hear from union organizers at their workplaces” and “streamlin[ing] the payroll deductions process for union dues.”

Using the estimated dues of the largest federal employee union as an example, the new union members for which the Biden administration is taking credit could represent between $37 million and $46 million in annual dues revenue. And as these employees are ushered through the union door, union officials and government agencies appear determined to slam it behind them. 

For employees who feel this arrangement violates their rights, litigation may be the only way out.

In the past year, the Fairness Center, the public interest law firm of which I am president, has filed 36 matters on behalf of federal employees involving 16 unions and eight federal agencies. Ashley Kjarbo, a New York IRS employee, is one of our clients.

Facing financial difficulty last year, Kjarbo completed a form to resign her membership in the National Treasury Employees Union, or NTEU. “Please, we need help,” she wrote the union. “I have two kids and can barely afford to put food on the table.” But the NTEU refused to process her resignation until months later, and then only if she could get the local union president to approve and initial it. As she discovered, these roadblocks are ripe for abuse.

Kjarbo repeatedly followed up and cited a Trump-era rule adopted by the Federal Labor Relations Authority, or FLRA – an independent board overseeing federal government labor relations – that allows federal employees who have served at least one year to revoke their union membership and stop paying dues at any time. But the union president still rejected her resignation.

As Kjarbo later discovered through a records request, the union president then emailed her IRS supervisor, calling Kjarbo’s financial situation a “fabricated tale of woe” and asking for help in stopping her from resigning.

Weeks later, Kjarbo’s supervisor accused her of “discourteous and unprofessional” behavior, issued a written warning, and threatened further discipline if she continued attempting to resign.

To defend herself, Kjarbo filed unfair labor practice charges with the FLRA against the IRS and union. But most employees have little hope of holding unions accountable through such charges. According to a report from the nonprofit Americans for Fair Treatment, FLRA records show 1,211 charges filed by individuals against unions since 2015. Just 21, or fewer than 2%, reached an enforcement action or settlement.

Our clients have also discovered that an FLRA sub-board had not issued an unfair labor practice decision since the 1980s, nor was a form available to file a charge.

Despite the odds, the FLRA found merit in Kjarbo’s allegations and charged the IRS with an unfair labor practice. The agency settled, committing to inform more than 2,500 of her colleagues that it was wrong and would not “interfere with, restrain, or coerce our employees in the exercise of their rights.” Our clients have achieved several settlements with unions on similar charges.

That’s progress, but the FLRA is proposing to throw out its existing union-resignation rule to make it even harder for employees to get out; it would block all federal employees, no matter their length of service, from leaving their unions except for during a narrow window of time, once a year. This new resignation restriction, instigated by the NTEU itself, would come just as a host of employees join union ranks and hand over millions in dues. To our growing list of federal-employee clients, this is no coincidence.

Nathan McGrath is president and general counsel for the Fairness Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm representing those hurt by public-sector union officials.

The author’s viewpoints are their own and do not necessarily represent those of the Fairness Center.