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By J.B. Wogan June 12, 2012

Some expansion but not full bargaining rights

In courting votes from federal workers in 2008, Barack Obama promised to reverse Bush-era decisions that removed collective bargaining rights for federal employees. He made the promise in an October 2008 letter to John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO.

Last time we updated this promise, we honed in on three actions during the Bush administration that Obama could undo to meet this promise: 1) Repeal the National Security Personnel System, a set of federal pay rules that unions said restricted collective bargaining rights for civilian Defense Department employees, 2) remove a prohibition against collective bargaining for Transportation Security Administration workers, and 3) restore a union for workers at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

As we noted earlier, Obama crossed off the first item on that checklist when he signed the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill in October 2009, which repealed the National Security Personnel System. Since then, the TSA Administrator, John Pistole, enabled TSA workers to have collective bargaining rights on limited, non-security issues such as shift bids, transfers and awards in February 2011. Pay, pensions and any form of compensation were not part of these rights.

And in reviewing the progress for this update, we found no evidence that workers at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives received union representation again. No public document we could find suggests the Obama administration ever attempted to restore this union.

Given the Obama administration's mixed success in restoring collective bargaining rights for federal employees, we rate this a Compromise.

Our Sources

By Kevin Robillard January 4, 2010

Some progress, but outcome uncertain for TSA

In a letter sent during the campaign to American Federation of Government Employees president John Gage, Barack Obama declared: "I support collective bargaining rights for all workers. As president, I will review decisions by the Bush administration that have denied these rights to federal employees and seek to restore them."

The letter was one of several Obama wrote while courting federal employees' votes during the campaign. Under the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, all federal employees have the right to bargain collectively, but the president has the power to restrict those rights for employees working in the intelligence or national security fields.

We found three major Bush administration moves restricting the ability of federal employees to unionize: the 2004 birth of the National Security Personnel System, a new set of federal pay rules; a prohibition against collective bargaining for Transportation Security Administration workers; and an executive order from last November - after Obama had written the letter to Gage - that eliminated a union representing staffers of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The Bush administration's creation of the National Security Personnel System created a new set of rules regarding promotions, pay raises and other issues for civilian Defense Department employees. Unions claimed this system imposed major restrictions on these workers' collective bargaining rights, and pushed for it to be abolished. The fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill, which Obama signed in October, repeals it .

As for Bush's executive order, it eliminated the collective bargaining rights for 1,500 ATF employees who have been unionized for decades . Obama could theoretically overturn it unilaterally with an executive order of his own, but we can't find any record of him attempting to do so.

So far in Obama's term, the biggest controversy about federal employee unions in Washington has focused on the Transporation Security Administration and the potential unionization of thousands of airport screeners nationwide. The November 2001 legislation creating the TSA enabled the organization's administrator to grant TSA employees collective bargaining rights, but none of the Bush-appointed administrators did so. In another letter , Obama pledged to change that.

But there's been no action so far. In October, Obama nominated Erroll Southers, a former assistant chief of the Los Angeles Airport Police, FBI agent and California homeland security official, to fill the administrator post. At his confirmation hearing, Southers was elusive. He told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that, if confirmed, he would take "an opportunity to meet with stakeholders and meet with employees, a cross-section of the organization, to see how [collective bargaining] is going to impact them. We would want to be able to protect employees, but our mission is, of course, security. In my discussions with staff and the secretary, I made it clear that I'd like to review this matter with the understanding that I would not compromise the security mission."

Even if Southers hasn't taken a firm position yet, both union leaders and anti-labor Republicans are working under the assumption he would grant collective bargaining rights to workers. "The attempted terror attack in Detroit is a perfect example of why the Obama administration should not unionize the TSA and allow our airline-security decisions to be dictated by union bosses," Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who has placed a hold on Southers' nomination, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review , demanding Southers make his stance on unionization clear. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has promised a vote on Southers' nomination when Congress reconvenes later this month.

So of the three areas where Obama had to reverse Bush's actions on collective bargaining, one is completed, no progress has been made on a second, and the third seems to be on a fast track to an unclear resolution. That makes the overall picture about federal workers' collective bargaining rights under the Obama administration a little murky. But it's enough for us to rate this promise In The Works.

Our Sources

Barack Obama, Letter to John Gage concerning Department of Homeland Security , October 20, 2008

The Washington Post, Obama Wrote Federal Staffers About His Goals , By Carol D. Leonnig, November 17, 2008

President George W. Bush, Executive Order 13480 , November 26, 2008

Barack Obama, Letter to John Gage concerning National Security Personnel System , September 9, 2008

National Treasury Employees Union, Statement of NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley Upon President Signing Fiscal 2010 DoD Authorization Bill , October 28, 2009

Government Executive, Lawmakers weigh in on executive order , By Alyssa Rosenberg, December 3, 2008

New York Times, Some Federal Workers Lose Bargaining Rights , By Robert Pear, December 1, 2008

Barack Obama, Letter to John Gage concerning Transportation Security Administration , October 20, 2008

Congressional Quarterly Transcripts, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Holds Hearing on the Nominations of Erroll Southers and Daniel Gordon , November 10, 2009

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Senator opposes collective-bargaining rights for TSA workers , By Tom Fontaine, January 1, 2010

McClatchy, Reid vows to force vote on TSA nominee DeMint blocked , By Margaret Talev, December 29, 2009

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