Defending Against Federal Layoffs -- An Example

Trump's administration has made the federal work force a target and suggests that the administration will lay off feds, cut and defund programs, transfer feds to positions outside their competence, and manage by recruiting corporate agents to agencies. These goals are real if not fully defined: Trump is putting corporate profits ahead of public needs.  The opposition to Trump is mainly federal unions and an increasingly politicized public.  The legal basis of Trump's actions will be challenged but we all must be ready to resist.

For federal-worker readers, the defense you need is joining your agency's union NOW.  If you are reluctant to sign up for dues withholding, know that in some agencies you can pay by check.  Your second line of defense is to get your coworkers to join too.  Without the involvement of most of your staff, the union's response might be limited.  Below is an example of a Reduction in Force (RIF, i.e. layoffs) during the Reagan administration.

When Reagan became president there were RIFs in many parts of the government in addition to the smashing of the air controllers' union.  In the Department of Energy, the RIFs were organized by 1st tier organizations (sub agencies).  This article is a brief story of the RIF in the Energy Information Administration (EIA).  It also gives a comparison with Trump's potential RIFs.

In DOE as a whole, there was great concern about job stability.  There was an anecdotal story that some DOE researchers were so upset that we had a suicide although I cannot confirm that.  However, keeping tabs on your coworkers is a good idea.  If they are troubled seek assistance.

Prior to the Reagan RIF, the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) chapter 213 had negotiated a contract that required each employee facing a layoff to be defended by a lawyer.  That type of support by the national union may have been a reason why DOE employees voted for NTEU over AFGE.  However, the recently formed chapter 213 had not enlisted enough employees to cover the costs of that support and the whole government was under attack.  The union and management then went into negotiations and removed that provision.  The chapter mobilizations included recruiting new members, lobbying the Hill, and classes on how the RIF works.  The union did get bargaining unit lists of employees and their place on the RIF schedule so we could check their accuracy.

Two actions minimized the impact of the RIF.  First, many EIA employees found jobs outside DOE at a high rate, thus bringing the permitted number of employees toward the allowed ceiling of employees.  The second action that limited the RIF was that it was aimed primarily at IT employees.  Management felt it could use contractors instead of feds in IT and that IT folks could find work more easily.  So the actual RIF in EIA was minimal, but the emotional toll carried on for decades.

One lesson of EIA's tale is that if you want broad support from your union, you need a broad membership to pay for it and support actions.  NTEU has used lawyers well, as in a case where they won against Nixon.  The government-wide assault by the Reagan administration greatly strained that strategy.

EIA may survive the Trump RIFs more easily than some other tiers, but those overall impacted could be much worse than EIA's history.  Trump's labor impact is scrambled by his not filling positions and by some of his appointees' lack of knowledge of their agencies.  Zeroing out whole programs could be costly to federal employees and their services.  Yet laws passed by Congress mandate most programs and the Congress and courts have a say.

The other good news for federal employees is that the resistance to this administration is growing quickly and is felt now in citizens' meetings with members of Congress and will be felt in next year's national elections. This year's election in Virginia will signal how the resistance is growing.  Organizations like Indivisible, Bernie Sander's Our Revolution, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and others are challenging current politicians daily and dozens of other groups are also adding to the challenge.  On the table is resistance and exploring what may be a new New Deal.  Many of the Trump voters find appeal in Bernie's positions and if the Democrats choose wisely we will have a movement and reclaim our democracy.

Tom Canning is former president of NTEU Chapter 213. Daniel C. Adkins, a former executive vice president of NTEU Chapter 213.

Related Entries