Watch Closely Obama's Treatment of Unions

Story Stream
recent articles

President Obama's new "Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order" requires federal contractors to disclose labor law violations for the past three years to the government before their contracts can be approved. Violations of 14 labor laws, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, must be reported to the contracting agency, and repeat violators will not receive contracts.

The executive order, signed on July 31, leaves the administration with enormous discretion for enforcement and gives it one more tool to bash its enemies and reward its friends.

One question arises: will the executive order be applied to unions? After all, unions such as the American Federal of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees sign contracts with government agencies, and therefore are government contractors, subject to the executive order.

The executive order reads, "This order seeks to increase efficiency and cost savings in the work performed by parties who contract with the Federal Government by ensuring that they understand and comply with labor laws."

Unions are "parties who contract with the Federal Government" and under the letter of the law they should be required to provide the last three years of their labor law violations, the same as private contractors.

Unions negotiate contracts with each government agency, including terms of work and the number of union employees on "official time," hours spent working for the union and not the taxpayer. These contracts are signed by government agency representatives and union officials. The executive order governs contracts valued at more than $500,000, and union contracts signed with agencies certainly provide far more than that sum.

To take one example, the National Treasury Employees Union represents 150,000 employees in 31 government agencies and departments. On its website,, it lists its many "accomplishments," including ending the Federal Career Intern Program, helping to pass a bill allowing federal employees to telecommute, and ending contracting out of government work to private companies.

What labor law violations did the National Treasury Employees Union have over the past three years? If the administration is not going to ask, perhaps some congressional committee might want to have a hearing on selective enforcement.

The object of the executive order is to hold corporations and their subcontractors accountable for laws including wage and hour, health and safety, collective bargaining, family and medical leave, and civil rights protections.
Unions subcontract for a wide variety of services ranging from trash removal from their offices to accounting help with completing tax forms. Can unions be sure that these subcontractors have not violated some health and safety law?

Each government agency will be required to appoint a Labor Compliance Advisor to coordinate with the Department of Labor and judge whether "contractors' actions rise to the level of a lack of integrity or business ethics," according to the White House Fact Sheet.

Unions as well as corporations can be guilty of violating labor laws. The National Labor Relations Board's Basic Guide to the National Labor Relations Act contains a section entitled "Unfair Labor Practices of Labor Organizations." These unfair labor practices include coercive conduct of union officials, threats to affect an employee's job status if he does not support union activity, and discriminating on the basis of race or sex.

In 2010, the latest year the data are available on the Board's web site, unions faced over 6,000 charges of violating different labor laws, mostly relating to union attempts to restrain employees from exercising their rights. Under the new executive order, the new Labor Compliance Advisers should take these charges as seriously as business violations.

Under the new order, favored contractors need not meet strict enforcement. Less favored contractors may not fare as well. Of course, the administration and labor groups can and will threaten contractors with difficult administrative proceedings under the new executive order if the contractor fails to cooperate in any number of possible ways.

The motivation behind the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order is neither fairness nor safety. It is entirely about rewarding friends and punishing enemies, and making federal contractors hostage to any and every threat from a friend of the administration. For proof, watch the administration's treatment of unions, the ultimate federal contractor.


Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter: @FurchtgottRoth.   

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles