The Social Security Administration's main campus is seen in Woodlawn, Maryland. Credit: Patrick Semansky | AP

President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders are a serious assault on federal labor organizations, but it is taxpayers who could become collateral damage.

Consider the Social Security Administration (SSA), which deals more directly with clients than most. It is on the front lines of the Trump-union clash, because officials there are enforcing his commands more aggressively than management at many agencies. Three orders issued in May sharply cut the time available for union officials to represent the workforce, restricted their ability to bargain collectively and sped the firing of federal employees. Another order, issued last week, would diminish administrative law judges, most of whom decide Social Security disputes involving recipients.

While the federal workforce and its representatives are the target of the orders, Social Security beneficiaries could be the victims warned Max Richtman, president and chief executive of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare. He said the impact on them is “pretty direct and dramatic.”

Calling agency employees “so dedicated,” he said “when they’re faced with a pretty hostile employer in the government executive in particular, their ability to perform their central duty is undermined and that will lead to a detrimental impact on Social Security beneficiaries.”

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) outlined on Tuesday conflicts initiated by Social Security in the wake of Trump’s orders:

SSA on July 9 “unilaterally implemented extensive changes to the contract that had previously been negotiated. . .The union attempted to negotiate with the agency but SSA managers walked away from the talks after just three days.”

“SSA has evicted union representatives from their offices and stripped them of their access to computers, phones, personnel files, and other tools that are vital to effective representation.”

“SSA reneged on the ground rules agreement” with the union and unilaterally imposed 21 provisions including those allowing the agency to fire feds faster and “eliminate employees’ ability to file grievances on terminations, performance appraisals, or awards.”

SSA’s press office did not directly address AFGE’s points, but did issue a boilerplate statement that said “Social Security provided each union with appropriate notice and the opportunity to bargain the impact and implementation of the Executive Orders. In adhering to the directives in the EOs, Social Security is working closely with the unions to ensure an orderly implementation supporting the vital missions we perform for the American public.”

That implementation is more like imposition and has been done with a vengeance, according to Witold Skwierczynski, president of AFGE’s National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals. “SSA followed the Trump administration’s executive order ‘guidance’ with gusto, joy, and clear purpose,” he said.

But the administration’s gusto and joy is a bummer for Social Security employees and that could be a drag for Social Security recipients.

Richtman and Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works and chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, cited the affect of Trump’s actions on employee morale and the resulting impact on service.

Altman is particularly concerned about Trump’s order that devalues administrative law judges (ALJ) by eliminating all but the most minimal requirements for new hires. Additionally, they would be selected by agency heads without first being vetted by the Office of Personnel Management as was the procedure. That makes the process more vulnerable to politicization.

“I think the executive orders are extremely damaging to the smooth functioning of the Social Security Administration,” Altman said, “and will harm the general public both directly and indirectly. … The most recent executive order, which seeks to politicize ALJs, is a perfect example. Around 85 percent of ALJs work for SSA. By politicizing their employment, they are likely to be seen as not acting independently and not affording claimants their due process.”

“More generally,” she added, “morale in the federal government is low across the government. Anecdotally, I know some very talented people who planned to spend their careers in the federal government but who have many private sector options, and reluctantly have decided to move on. This exacerbates a brain drain that was already occurring as a result of the aging of the baby boom.”

Stay tuned — what is happening at Social Security will soon appear at agency near you.

“What’s going on at SSA will spread to other agencies if we don’t stop it in its tracks,” said AFGE President J. David Cox. “The Trump administration’s effort to purge unions from the workplace is an attempt to turn the entire government into an at-will workforce with workers hired and fired based on their allegiance to the president.”

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