Washington Insider -- Wednesday

The Trump Administration's Fight Against Unions

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

NAFTA Issues Also Coming Into Focus

The fourth round of talks kicks off near Washington, DC, today and dairy is shaping up to be a key issue. The U.S. dairy industry is calling for an end to Canada's supply/management program for dairy. "I don't know what the U.S. government is going to do, but we certainly are talking very clearly that we need complete elimination of [Canadian] tariffs," said Jaime Castaneda, senior vice president for strategic initiatives and trade policy at the National Milk Producers Federation. "Once you eliminate tariffs, supply management goes."

But there will be pushback from Canada as officials all the way up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (he starts a U.S. visit today with sessions with the House Ways & Means Committee and President Donald Trump) have defended the Canadian system. Anything that offers U.S. dairy new import quotas for access to the Canadian market will not mean much due to other policy changes that have effectively barred U.S. skim milk solids, according to trade experts.

From the Mexican and Canadian side, they want dairy changes, too. Things like access to the U.S. market for Canadian and Mexican Grade A dairy products like fresh cheese and yogurt could be pushed. Plus, on sugar, Canada wants to ship more refined sugar to the U.S. and their sugar refineries have excess capacity and would like to bring in raw sugar from other countries, refine it and ship it to the U.S. as Canadian sugar which would get it into the U.S. duty-free.

US Olive Dumping Accusations Rile Spain's Andalusia

Spain’s autonomous community of Andalusia wants Madrid to defend the EU’s system of support to the food industry after being accused of olive dumping by the U.S. The Andalusian government maintains the accusations, by Californian companies, are “opportunistic and unjust”.

Rodrigo Sanchez Haro, Andalusia’s minister of agriculture, fisheries and sustainable development, said he expects the Spanish government to inform the European Commission of the need to denounce such accusations to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The statement by Sanchez Haro was made following a meeting with the president of the Spanish Association of Exporters and Processors of Table Olives (Asemesa), Carlos Camacho, and Asemesa’s secretary general, Antonio Mora.

The minister said that the complaint against the U.S. would represent a defense “not only of Spanish black olives, but of the entire aid system designed by the European Commission itself, within the framework of international agreements.”

Washington Insider: The Trump Administration's Fight Against Unions

In the midst of intense personal kerfuffles in Washington these days, the President is pushing hard against federal unions -- but membership is continuing to grow, perhaps even in reaction to GOP actions, Washington Post reports.

In spite of GOP control of both the White House and Congress, membership in federal unions is on the rise, the Post says, fed by an administration and legislature that leaves the workforce anxious about budget cuts, layoffs and an erosion of civil service protections.

For example, The Post says that the American Federation of Government Employees, the biggest federal employee union, had a net increase of 1,022 members last month alone, and added some 5,000 new members since January. Three of the four other major unions also reported growth, including the National Federation of Federal Employees which is “on pace to achieve 7% growth this year,” the Post says.

The Post thinks the although federal union membership has grown previously, administration efforts to cut budgets and cut contributions to federal employee benefits that are significantly devaluing the 1.9% pay raise that staffers are slated to get in January. Also, The Post reports that the union growth was occurring even before the House approved a budget proposal that would reduce subsidies to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

The budget plan calls for $32 billion in cuts targeted at feds over 10 years. While unspecified in the House budget resolution, those hits could include damaging retirement proposals previously offered by Trump.

Trump’s action is “a major step backward in the relationship between managers and front-line federal employees [that] will weaken efforts to make government more efficient and effective,” according to the Treasury Employees Union.

“This is an ominous sign for the future of federal labor-management relations,” NTEU President Tony Reardon added. But, it is not the only one, the Post said.

After the President announced his appointees to the Federal Services Impasses Panel in July, union leaders said they were aghast. The panel resolves disputes between agencies and federal labor organizations. With Trump’s appointees, labor leaders feel the deck is stacked against them.

“The Trump administration pulled out all of the stops on this one,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “The diversity of this panel ranges from people who publicly campaign against unions to people that actively litigate against unions. I have little faith that this panel can properly evaluate a dispute without inherent bias or personal ideology interfering.”

In addition, The Post says it seems that the President is dismantling labor/management forums and empowers efforts by congressional Republicans against “official time.” Now, they can argue, there is less reason for it.

Union officials use official time to participate in the forums and other activities designed to facilitate communication and problem-solving between labor and management. Labor leaders on official time are paid by the government while representing everyone in a bargaining unit, even those who don’t pay dues.

The fact is that much “union work,” such as recruiting members, is not allowed. Official time covers working with management on issues involving federal employees, union members or not, such as safety and efficiency, thee union officials say.

The Post concludes that Congressional assaults on worker organizations can and do encourage feds to join unions for protection. A law affecting the Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, weakens due process for all employees and eliminates the ability of VA’s senior executives to appeal disciplinary actions to outside agencies, as other feds can, the Post says.

Union growth “has more to do with attacks coming from Congress than what is coming from the administration, with the latest example being the House-passed budget,” said Matt Biggs, legislative director of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers.

The proposal was approved, 219 to 206, by the House last week, with no Democratic support and 18 Republicans defecting from their party’s efforts to weaken the bureaucracy that Republicans see as too strong.

On a related front, Trump’s plan to weaken government through personnel cuts led to Thursday’s letter to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman from all 18 Democrats on the panel, calling for hearings on the “degradation of the federal workforce.”

That degradation led NTEU’s Reardon to ask: “Since when is it acceptable to attack the very people who are providing hurricane relief, protecting clean air and water, conducting cutting-edge scientific research, enforcing the tax laws, securing the border, maintaining the national parks and guarding our financial system?”

So, this is a fight that surprises nobody, but the idea that budget cuts and tougher rules on the bureaucracy actually unify -- and possibly strengthen -- some of the organizations in the administration crosshairs is relatively counterintuitive. This is a The Post conclusion that certainly will be tested quickly, and which is unlikely to change administration predispositions about labor groups -- but which could intensify important labor disputes and which should be watched closely by producers, Washington Insider believes.

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