A federal appeals court in Washington on Tuesday dealt a blow to labor unions representing federal workers in their battle with the Trump administration over get-tough workplace rules.
The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reverses a ruling last year that struck down key provisions in three executive orders signed by President Trump that rolled back civil service protections, making it easier to fire employees and weaken their union representation.
The orders, which affect 2.1 million civil servants, are part of a confrontational approach the president has taken toward a federal bureaucracy he calls unaccountable and wasteful.
The executive orders were challenged by more than a dozen unions representing federal employees, which called them a violation of the civil service law passed by Congress in 1978 setting out unions’ right to collective bargaining.
The three-judge panel unanimously held Tuesday that the lower court “lacked jurisdiction” to review the matter and that unions must first pursue such claims through an administrative process before seeking review by the appeals court.
“We reverse because the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction,” wrote Judge Thomas B. Griffith, who was joined by Judges Sri Srinivasan and A. Raymond Randolph.
The 20-page ruling did not address the underlying issues at the heart of the unions’ challenge. Instead, the judges said the lower court “had no power to address the merits of the executive orders” and that the challenge should have been reviewed first by the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA), a three-member agency charged with adjudicating federal labor disputes.
“Although the unions are not able to pursue their preferred systemwide challenge through the scheme, they can ultimately obtain review of and relief from the executive orders by litigating their claims in the context of concrete bargaining disputes,” the court wrote.
Griffith was nominated by President George W. Bush; Srinivasan by President Barack Obama and Randolph by President George H.W. Bush.
The unions can ask the full D.C. Circuit to rehear the case and reconsider the decision from the three-judge panel or they could seek review from the Supreme Court.
Last August, U.S. District Judge Ketanji Jackson Brown blocked the Trump administration from implementing certain provisions of new rules that restricted the use of “official time” — on-duty time that union officials can spend representing members in grievances and on other issues.
The rules also limited the issues that could be bargained over in union negotiations and rolled back the rights of workers deemed to be poor performers to appeal disciplinary action.
Several federal employee unions said they were considering their options on whether to appeal the ruling and have scheduled a meeting with their attorneys to decide on next steps.
Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said in an email that the appeals court, in ruling on the jurisdiction but not the merits of the case, “did not give the Trump administration a stamp of approval.”
“On the merits of this case, the Appeals Court said absolutely nothing to contradict the analysis of Judge Jackson’s lower court ruling, which found the Executive Orders altogether unlawful,” said Erwin, who represents 110,000 employees.
“In our view, these Executive Orders violate the law, and we are going to continue to fight them until we get a decision that sticks,” he said. “This Appeals Court decision does not change the fact that the Trump Administration severely overstepped its authority.”