Environment

Trump's Attack on Federal Labor Unions Harms the EPA, Environment and Public Health

By marginalizing federal employees, Trump is risking America’s health and ecosystems.

Photo Credit: senate.gov

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And, history is definitely repeating itself. President Donald Trump’s rule-by-decree executive orders, especially regarding federal labor unions, remind me of the late Rev. Friedrich Niemöller, a German Lutheran pastor best known for a widely paraphrased statement:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

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Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. 

As Trump rejects trade unions and would marginalize their members, it is time for Americans to speak out. On May 25, 2018, he issued three executive orders savagely attacking the largest sector of trade unionism—the federal sector. Trump is dangerous. He is also as serious as a heart attack on public employees and their unions’ official time, space arrangements and federal civil service protections. The Labor and Employee Relations Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is already chomping at the bit to implement Trump’s three anti-union executive orders, two of which target labor organization and one that makes it easier to fire federal civil servants. Part of that effort is to deny union members the opportunity—and their privilege—to visit with lawmakers on official time. 

Should you be worried that these executive orders attacking federal unions—which are comprised of scientists and engineers—might negatively impact the environment and public health? Yes, if you’re concerned that a surge in allowable levels of particle and ozone pollution in Pennsylvania can harm children’s lungs. Yes, if you’re concerned that this White House will permit further contamination of drinking water resources in our Great Lakes. Yes, if you’re concerned that EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s arbitrary choices for Superfund remediation will give, according to an EPA press release, “immediate and intense action” to some sites, while ignoring more acutely in-need and neglected toxic lands in Houston and across the nation. Yes, if you’re concerned that continued inaction is exacerbating the climate crisis along America’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Without AFGE Council 238—the union for more than 8,000 EPA workers—there will be no one to let Congress know exactly what is going on at the EPA under Pruitt’s unethical leadership. There will be more pressure put on EPA staff to certify state and local laboratories that don’t meet minimal standards, to approve air, water and land permits absent adequate protection of human health and the environment. And approvals of dangerous pesticides would be rushed through without adequate scientific review. In a nutshell, without the union protecting whistleblowers, they will not blow the whistle because they need their jobs to pay their mortgage, utilities and children’s education.

To Trump’s discontent, labor is organized—and protesting. It will, however, require action by the judicial branch to rectify the president’s trampling on the legislative branch and existing statutes. So, perhaps America is moving backwards in time. 

Take, for example, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883. Following the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881 by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled job seeker, Congress passed the act, which was introduced by Sen. George Pendleton (D-Ohio). It provided that federal government jobs be awarded based on merit and through competitive exams. It stopped the appointment of people to governmental offices merely because of their political affiliation or their connection to the president. The law offended politicians who belong to a small clique that controls a political party. These “machine politicians” realized that with the Pendleton Act in place, they would have to find new means of income, as they could no longer count on donations from the wealthy hoping to receive jobs.

Fast forward to 2018, and Trump has made cronyism the order of the day, filling the executive branch with many who are simply unqualified to hold their positions. Trump would deny working families benefits protected by the Constitution. Those rights include collective bargaining on pay and working conditions, legal services, personal representation, health and safety and fairness. Trump’s executive orders would prevent our federal workforce from organizing. 

Ultimately, Trump would end civil service protections and destroy labor’s federal sector unions. In February 2017, Trump quietly hired James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation to handle labor and employment policy. Sherk believes that federal workers are overpaid; he opposes increasing the minimum wage and expanding workers’ rights. He was indoctrinated at the Koch-funded Hillsdale College that has helped to advance the corporate agenda of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, to undermine the rights of workers using their so-called model legislation, which benefits special interests in more than a third of our 50 states. 

The right-wing Heritage Foundation was Sherk’s proving ground for Trump’s White House. It’s where he honed his craft of limiting the influence that unions have and undermining workers’ rights. Sherk is also a proponent of local governments pushing “right-to-work laws,” statutes in 28 states that prohibit agreements between employers and labor unions. Notably, three major aspects in right-to-work states are: 1) The right to work for significantly less money; 2) the right to work with less training; and 3) the right to work with fewer safety conditions.

Considering the fact that most Republicans disdain unelected federal employees and labor unions comprising working women and men, it’s difficult to feel optimistic. It’s hard to hold out much hope for the federal sector and labor unions under the Trump regime. If federal sector unions go, then the “Save the U.S. EPA Campaign”—a national campaign being conducted by AFGE Council 238 and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) to stop the destruction of the EPA—goes away as well. The interests of the coal and fossil fuel industries will continue to be placed above those of the American public. The abuse of taxpayer dollars will also go on, while jobs and programs that are critical to the health and safety of America’s air, water, land and endangered species will be drastically cut or even eliminated. Science will be undermined. Public health will suffer.

Trump and Pruitt are reducing protections of federal employees to enshrine an era of cronyism. Simultaneously, they threaten the environmental protections for all Americans by refusing to staff open positions at EPA. By design, that will result in fewer civil servants keeping our land, water and air clean. Trump and his chief sycophant at the EPA will call that ‘Victory!’

But the blame does not fall entirely on the Republicans. It is shared by the Democrats who consistently fail to vigorously support labor unions. For years, the pendulum has remained to the far right. As a result, one agency and department after another fail to meet objectives because they are not only understaffed and under-budgeted, but are filled with toadies. Meanwhile the people’s work doesn’t get done. The American taxpayers and voters are not served, while the Koch Brothers and their Republican cohorts get richer and more powerful. Worse yet, the best and the brightest younger generation is no longer attracted to government positions because they are treated with hostility, like second-class citizens. Morale at the EPA is down, because the moralities of America’s elected leaders are in the gutter. 

“…Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.” Who’s next? Maybe the Democrats?

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

John O’Grady is President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National Council of EPA Locals #238 representing over 8,000 bargaining unit employees at the U.S. EPA nationwide.