D.C. Circuit: Federal worker unions can demand 'midterm' bargaining

REUTERS/Phil McCarten
  • Agencies must respond to union calls for bargaining in middle of contract term
  • Ruling means unions can bypass White House-appointed board when disputes arise

(Reuters) - Federal-sector unions, which collectively represent more than 1 million government workers, have the right to demand that agencies bargain with them in the middle of a contract term, a U.S. appeals court said on Friday.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said the fact that federal civil service law is silent about so-called "midterm bargaining" does not mean it should be treated any differently than requests to bargain for a new contract when an existing one is expiring, striking down Trump-era precedent from the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA).

In a 2020 policy statement, the FLRA, an agency that mediates disputes between federal agencies and unions, had said midterm bargaining is optional for federal agencies, but the D.C. Circuit called the FLRA's stance a product of "drive-by procedure and conclusory reasoning."

Friday's ruling means that unions whose requests for midterm bargaining are turned down by federal agencies can go to arbitration and eventually court rather than taking cases to an "impasse panel" within the FLRA, which can impose contract terms over a union's objections.

The FLRA is stocked with political appointees and routinely issues rulings against unions during Republican administrations.

Friday's decision came in a challenge by the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 700,000 federal workers, and two other unions to the 2020 policy statement.

The National Treasury Employees Union, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement that it "hopes that the FLRA will heed the D.C. Circuit’s admonition, which it has now delivered repeatedly, that it must issue reasoned decisions."

The case is American Federation of Government Employees v. FLRA, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, No. 20-1398.

For the unions: Paras Shah of the National Treasury Employees Union

For the FLRA: Noah Peters

(Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include a statement from the National Treasury Employees Union.)

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.