The board that oversees unions in federal agencies is shifting to democratic control

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Democrats now control a panel that oversees negotiations and other working relationships within the federal government after the Senate confirmed a new member on Thursday.

The vote on Susan Tsui Grundmann for a seat over the three-member Federal Labor Relations Authority is a top priority for federal unions, which are waiting for a Democratic majority to reverse a series of Trump-era decisions they say are too restrictive.

Grundmann previously served in senior positions at several unions and ran a separate regulatory agency for federal employees, the Merit Systems Protection Board, during the Obama administration. She will replace a Republican member of the FLRA who served as a holdover after his term ended.

The FLRA is an independent agency that functions similarly to the National Labor Relations Board for the private sector.

Unlike unionized private sector workers, federal employees do not have the right to strike, and their unions generally cannot negotiate wages and benefits. However, civil service law permits negotiations on “employment conditions”. Many disputes brought before the FLRA relate to what that term covers or excludes.

This is now playing out in negotiations over federal workplace coronavirus safety protocols and which federal employees are allowed to telecommute, how often, and for long periods.

Unions welcomed Grundmann’s confirmation, which came by a vote of 50 to 49, with Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) lining up with Democrats and one Democrat not voting.

“In recent years, the majority of FLRAs have issued decisions and policy statements that routinely ignored legal precedent and attempted to minimize federal employees’ voices in the federal workplace,” said National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon.

Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the endorsement will “restore dignity and fairness to this important government agency.”

During the Trump administration, the board made a number of pro-management decisions by issuing policy statements at the request of the Office of Personnel Management and other agencies.

For example, FLRA has raised the standard for requiring agencies to negotiate changes in working conditions during an employment contract. It also limited management’s obligation to negotiate other new issues during this period.

In separate cases decided in late January and early February, a federal appeals court overturned those lawsuits, saying the agency failed to warrant a departure from its own longstanding practices.

Each of these policies was enacted by a 2-to-1 vote by the FLRA Board of Directors, with the two Republicans in favor and the Democrat against. Democratic member Ernest DuBester is now chairman of the board, having been appointed to the role by President Biden last year. Biden also nominated DuBester for another term, a nomination pending in the Senate.

Grundmann’s endorsement marks the latest change in direction under the Biden administration from its predecessor on the unions, which represent approximately 1.2 million of the 2.1 million federal workers outside the US Postal Service. The USPS is even more unionized, but private sector labor laws apply there.

In one of his first acts as president, Biden revoked several executive orders from the Trump administration that restricted federal employees’ negotiation and appeal rights.

Since then he has taken a number of measures welcomed by unions, including the exhibition guidance Encouraging authorities to better inform prospective and current workers about the presence of unions in federal workplaces and the rights of union representation.

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