By Benjamin Hart
A federal judge ruled early Saturday that a set of Trump administration rules designed to weaken federal unions did not pass legal muster.
The administration issued three executive orders in May that would have imposed new requirements on the unions, which retain significant power in Washington and beyond. Among other things, the rules directed federal agencies to force the unions to renegotiate their contracts, fire underperforming workers much more quickly, and restrict the amount of time workers could spend on union business at their offices. The provisions were put into place in July.
In response, the unions filed suit against the administration.
In her ruling, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote that the kinds of changes the administration had attempted to institute must involve negotiations between federal agencies and their workers, and that the Trump administration had exceeded its authority by attempting to impose them from above.
Though the Trump administration had positioned the orders as mere guidance, not hard-and-fast rules, Jackson wrote that the rules would still "impair the ability of agency officials to keep an open mind, and to participate fully in give-and-take discussions, during collective bargaining negotiations."
In a statement issued after Saturday's ruling, J. David Cox Sr., the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said that "President Trump's illegal action was a direct assault on the legal rights and protections that Congress specifically guaranteed to the public-sector employees across this country who keep our federal government running every single day."
The White House had pitched the regulations as a boon for government efficiency. But, coming from a president who warns darkly of a clandestine deep state, and is conducting a slow-motion purge of perceived enemies at the Department of Justice, the real goals seemed to be damaging America's civil service and instilling fear across the bureaucracy. So far, that mission had apparently been successful: the New York Times reports that the new rules "had begun to create an atmosphere of fear among workers at many federal agencies."
Saturday's ruling is another major win for public-sector unions, which also scored a victory when Missouri voters resoundingly rejected a proposed right to work law earlier this month.
But those victories have been overshadowed by two momentous developments in the other direction. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that workers could exempt themselves from public-sector union fees, in a major, if expected, blow. And in July, President Trump selected Brett Kavanaugh to replace the retiring Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. As evidenced by his pivotal vote in the Janus case, Kennedy was no great friend to unions. But Kavanaugh is an outright foe, and his likely-to-be-successful nomination probably presages a new wave of 5-4 anti-union decisions over the next few years.
The government is expected to appeal Saturday's ruling. If a federal appeals court sides with Judge Jackson, the case is likely to end up before the most anti-union Supreme Court in decades, where the smart money would be on an outcome favorable to the Trump administration.