Trump is exploiting coronavirus pandemic to ram through union-busting policies

Trump accused of exploiting coronavirus pandemic to advance "truly disgraceful" union-busting effort

Published March 21, 2020 4:00AM (EDT)

Transit Union Workers protest (Getty Images/Salon)
Transit Union Workers protest (Getty Images/Salon)

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President Donald Trump is not letting the global coronavirus pandemic stand in the way of his administration's assault on what's left of organized labor in the United States.

In fact, as the New York Times reported Friday, the Trump administration is actively using the outbreak as a pretext to ram through union-busting policies and other right-wing agenda items that would likely draw closer scrutiny and public outrage under normal circumstances.

"The White House, under the guise of its coronavirus response, is quietly advancing policies that President Trump has long advocated, from tougher border controls to an assault on organized labor to the stonewalling of congressional oversight," the Times reported. "Administration officials insist that such long-sought policies are necessary to stem the outbreak. But opportunism is clearly in play."

On Wednesday, the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) — a small federal agency governed by three Trump appointees — quietly issued a rule proposal public-sector unions condemned as "an ideological attack" on organized labor.

Under current law, federal employees are permitted to cancel their union dues and membership during an annual 15-day window after they have been a member for at least one year.

The FLRA's proposed rule would allow federal employees to cancel their dues at any time after one year of union membership.

"That they would push forward with this kind of union-busting in the midst of a pandemic, while front-line federal employees like [Veterans Affairs] caregivers, airport screeners, food inspectors, and other personnel are being forced to fight the administration for basic safety protocols and personal protective equipment, is truly disgraceful," Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), said in a statement Thursday.

Colleen Duffy Kiko, the Trump-appointed FLRA chair, claimed last month that the rule change is necessary to comply with the "spirit" of the Supreme Court's 2018 Janus vs. AFSCME ruling, which said that public-sector unions cannot collect so-called "fair share" fees that help unions represent all workers, including non-union members.

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), said in a statement that the FLRA's proposed change flies in the face of decades of established federal labor law. NTEU is challenging the proposed rule in court.

"There is only one reason to change one-year dues collection agreements and that is to try and harm unions," said Reardon. "This action reveals in stark terms just how determined the administration is to roll back the rights and benefits of federal employees."

The union-busting rule is one of several right-wing policies the Trump adminstration is pursuing under the cover of the coronavirus outbreak, which has infected nearly 13,000 people in the U.S. as of Friday morning.

"Across the government," the Times reported Friday, "departments have been citing the 'whole of government' response to the pandemic as they push through the same policies they sought before the crisis." Such a list could include xenophobic border restrictions, further attacks on science, bailouts for the oil and gas industry, and limitations on congressional oversight powers.

"Under normal conditions there would be extended debate and back and forth, but under this emergency some of those things will get through with less scrutiny," David Lapan, Trump's former spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, told the Times. "It is a way to use this national emergency or pandemic to push through some of these quickly that might not get through in the normal course of business."

Naomi Klein, author of "The Shock Doctrine"  —a 2007 book that documents how governments have exploited natural disasters and other crises to advance neoliberal policies — warned Monday that the Trump administration could draw from that same playbook amid the COVID-19 outbreak and urged progressives to be ready to fight back.

"We know what Trump's plan is: a pandemic shock doctrine featuring all the most dangerous ideas lying around, from privatizing Social Security to locking down borders to caging even more migrants," Klein said. "Hell, he might even try canceling elections."

"If there is one thing history teaches us, it's that moments of shock are profoundly volatile," Klein added. "We either lose a whole lot of ground, get fleeced by elites, and pay the price for decades, or we win progressive victories that seemed impossible just a few weeks earlier. This is no time to lose our nerve."

By Jake Johnson

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