How Trump is empowering those who seek to crush independent unions in the U.S.
Anyone praising the Ukraine whistleblowers for their courage, and fearful of the chilling effect of the Trump administration’s crackdown on whistleblowers, ought to support strong and independent public sector unions. Unions, after all, offer federal workers protection from the whims of the political appointees who are often their ultimate bosses.
Yet President Donald Trump recently lifted a man whose whole career has centered on eviscerating public-sector unions to a position with direct power over them, and it was only reported in a single state blog. Last week, Trump appointed Maxford Nelsen to fill a seat on the Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP), a board housed within the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA).
Most people have never heard of Nelsen, FSIP, or the FLRA. But if you work for the federal government, this decision could leave you with less job security and more working hours. Since the federal government is the largest employer in the American economy, that’s a lot of people who could suffer due to this decision.
The FLRA is an independent agency that oversees the relationship between federal workers’ unions and their bosses—think of it as a neutral decision-maker when unions and management need an external voice to make the final call on a given issue. Within the FLRA, the FSIP has jurisdiction over two key statutes: one which gave federal workers the right to collective organizing around personnel in the first place, and the other which set rules around schedules and hours for federal workers.
When unions and management can’t reach an agreement over disputes around these two statutes, FSIP ends up having the final word. That’s important, since federal employees don’t have the right to strike, and there are often limitations on what a union can negotiate on within a given agency. An FSIP ruling is meant as an alternative to the usual way labor and management would close an unresolved dispute—namely, with talks breaking down, and the union perhaps going on strike.
As a new member of the FSIP, Nelsen’s vote serves as a substitute to the direct leverage a strike would normally exert, meaning union members’ hopes may end up riding on the decisions of him and his fellow FSIP members. They will almost certainly be disappointed by every ruling he makes.
Since 2013, Nelsen has directed the Freedom Foundation’s labor policy division. The Freedom Foundation is one of the hundreds of generically named conservative think tanks and advocacy groups in the State Policy Network, Charles Koch’s web of libertarian influence organizations. Public-sector unions are a particular bugaboo for the Freedom Foundation, whose CEO once wrote that “Labor bosses are the single greatest threat to freedom and opportunity in America today… The Freedom Foundation has a proven plan for bankrupting and defeating government unions through education, litigation, legislation and community activation.”
That “proven plan” was first developed in 2014, after the Supreme Court ruled that partially-public-sector workers—like home care aides paid through Medicaid—were not required to pay dues to a union they had not joined, even if that union’s negotiations directly benefited them. The Freedom Foundation began public awareness campaigns to urge former dues-payers against contributing. Nelsen’s own work included investigating a South Seattle research center’s financial connections to major unions, and he ultimately called the center “little more than a state-subsidized extension of the WSLC.”
Four years later, the Supreme Court expanded this dues-optional standard to all public-sector unions in the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME ruling. The Freedom Foundation filed an amicus brief for the Janus case which cited a report by Nelsen several times.
Unsurprisingly, Nelsen is a vocal Janus fan, writing blog posts to call out perceived slights from Washington state lawmakers, giddily highlighting dropping union membership, and being ejected from government buildings for handing out leaflets about the decision.
Now, from the board of the FSIP, he’ll have direct authority to make rulings that further weaken government unions’ capacity to credibly stand up to management. And importantly, he’ll be able to do this while still working at the Freedom Foundation to starve these unions of operating revenue. The FSIP is only a part-time commitment, and nothing prevents Nelsen from retaining his research job at the Freedom Foundation. Thus, he can pursue his anti-labor agenda from both the outside and the inside, at the same time, completely legally.
This is not what FSIP was designed for. It’s supposed to be a neutral arbiter between management and labor, not a tool for one side to exert dominance over the other. Which brings us to another key part of the story, namely, that it’s not a new story.
A cursory glance at the member bios shows the current FSIP members include the chair of a legal practice for companies fighting against labor unions, a vice president at the Koch-backed Mercatus Center, a Delta Air Lines lobbyist (the same airline which posted a notorious anti-union poster this year), the founder of a law center “offering free legal services to those hurt by public employee union officials,” a lawyer for the hyper-right-wing Goldwater Institute (named for Barry Goldwater), and a labor policy consultant for the aforementioned Koch vehicle, the State Policy Network.
Every single one of the FSIP’s members comes from a background indicating antagonism to organized labor. FSIP members are appointed for five-year terms, likely to protect against a president stuffing the board with loyalists and ensure some holdovers from administration to administration. But right now, there are no pro-labor members, or even just non-interested parties like academics, to offer any counter-weight to the pro-management bloc.
Nelsen’s appointment, then, is sadly just more of the same. It’s more of the same for FSIP and the FLRA, and more of the same for the Trump administration. Undeniably, there is a lot going on in the news right now, more than almost anyone can follow. But if we let appointments like these and rulings from boards like FSIP slip completely under the radar, the consequences can ripple out and enable the culture of unchecked corruption among appointees that we see today.
Max Moran is a research assistant at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which aims to increase scrutiny on executive branch appointments.