Employees of the AFL-CIO, the union federation representing 12.5 million workers, rallied against furloughs during the December-January government shutdown. But they could soon be facing furloughs of their own.
A group of secretaries, accountants, janitors and other hourly workers at the federation’s Washington headquarters have been fighting a months-long battle with management over their next collective bargaining agreement. While the two sides have settled most issues, the dispute now revolves around furloughs, and whether management would have the right to unilaterally impose them as it tightens its budget.
A union representing the 50 AFL-CIO employees, the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 2, says that what the federation is seeking runs counter to its own values, since its contract demand could weaken job security and cut workers’ pay unpredictably.
“This is in many ways unprecedented for being in a union contract, much less a union contract that is in the house of labor,” said Jessica Maiorca, a Local 2 staff representative.
The staff union went so far as to file an unfair labor practice charge last month, accusing the AFL-CIO of imposing the furlough power without the right to do so. The charge also claims the federation “unilaterally changed” the working conditions of an employee whose job involves driving the AFL-CIO’s president, Richard Trumka, and other executive officers.
A spokesperson for the federation said it was committed to finding solutions to the dispute with the staff union, but declined to get into specifics.
The AFL-CIO has made budget cuts in recent years as the nationwide rate of union membership has dropped. The federation is not a union itself ― it is an association of unions, now numbering 55, that advocates for its member unions and the workers they represent. The unions pay fees to the AFL-CIO based on their own membership, and so the AFL-CIO’s financial health tends to rise and fall with the broader labor movement.
Only around one in 10 U.S. workers now belongs to a union. And unions have struggled to stem their decline as more states pass right-to-work laws, which ban the requirement that workers represented by a union pay fees to it, as well as other legislation aimed at weakening organized labor’s clout. Last year some of the AFL-CIO’s largest member unions suffered a major legal and financial setback when the Supreme Court ruled that public-sector workers can’t be required to pay such fees.
“This is in many ways unprecedented for being in a union contract, much less a union contract that is in the house of labor.”
The dispute at the AFL-CIO is yet another sign of how belt-tightening within organized labor has chipped away at union staff jobs. The positions tend to come with good benefits and pensions, but the labor groups have been seeking concessions from employees in the face of headwinds at the state level and rulings by the Supreme Court and the National Labor Relations Board in the era of President Donald Trump. Employees at the 2-million-member Service Employees International Union have threatened to strike as their employer tries to strip away layoff protections.
According to the AFL-CIO, most of the federation’s employees accepted two weeks’ worth of furloughs following a 2017 reorganization aimed at shoring up its budget. That included a group of professional employees who are members of another staff union, the Washington-Baltimore News Guild. Local 2 members, however, voted that option down, which led to early retirements as well as layoffs in their bargaining unit.
Local 2 members say they tentatively agreed to furloughs in a four-year union contract ― up to 12 days a year per employee, in each of the contract’s final two years. That would amount to roughly a 4.5 percent salary cut for a full-time employee who works 40 hours a week. They also agreed to continue a wage freeze for another three years. The two sides still could not hammer out an agreement.
The fight boils down to a single, potent sentence in the AFL-CIO’s 35-page final offer to employees: “Management reserves the right to establish workforce numbers, hours and days of operation with proportional pay to assure the federation’s operations are stable and financially viable.”
In plain English, management reserves the right to furlough employees as it sees fit, without any contractual limitations.
The AFL-CIO does not wield the same furlough power over employees who are members of the News Guild, according to that union’s contract, which was ratified last year. Dan Gabor, an AFL-CIO employee and the unit chair for the News Guild members, said the furlough language that would apply to Local 2 members would blow an awfully large hole in any contract.
“That’s the difference between a union contract and an at-will employment agreement,” he said. “A union contract is supposed to give security and stability... language we use every day as a federation.”
Maiorca, the Local 2 staff representative, said if management gets the contract language it seeks, the AFL-CIO would not have to consult the union before furloughing workers or open its books to explain why such moves are necessary. She said furloughing people for extended periods could be cheaper for the organization than layoffs, since employees would be contractually entitled to severance pay in the event of staff cuts.
According to Local 2, last October the AFL-CIO imposed the terms of their proposal on employees ― a step it can legally take if the two sides have reached an impasse in bargaining. The employees later voted to authorize a strike, though union leadership has not declared one yet.
In its unfair labor practice charge filed last month with the NLRB, Local 2 claims the AFL-CIO imposed the contract before a legitimate impasse was reached. So far, no one has been furloughed.
Tara Mitchell, an office administrator at the federation’s headquarters, said it struck her as hypocritical to protest against furloughs during the 35-day government shutdown, considering the furlough fight inside the building.
“The AFL-CIO officers stood up and rallied for [federal workers] during the government shutdown because of the furloughs (those workers) were forced to take,” Mitchell said. “But under our current imposed contract, management can furlough any of us at any time, for any number of days ― without justification, without negotiating with the union and in perpetuity.”