Federal Employees Gain Union Rights

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Federal Employees Gain Union Rights

United States 1962


Unionism's existence in the private sector has, for the most part, gone relatively unchallenged by public opinion during its growth in the United States. One of the strongest weapons employees possess is collective bargaining, a process by which an employer and a union representative negotiate for improvements in work conditions and wages. Generally, contemporary Americans support the concept of unionism and collective bargaining. This includes the employee's right to strike.

In the private sector, outside of key industries like transportation, strikes and walkouts rarely cause difficulties to anyone beyond the industry itself. However, the same cannot be said for the public sector. A strike by federal employees can easily cripple a city, state, or even the entire country. The public seldom supports the strikers, no matter how just their cause may be. This resentment stems from the severe disruptions to daily routines and threats to civic well being that can result from a strike. Conducting fair labor negotiations becomes difficult as public pressure mounts on both sides for a consensus to be reached. For these and other reasons, the government actively opposed unionism for federal employees during the nineteenth century and half of the twentieth. Indeed some laws, such as the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, were interpreted in ways that hindered organizing among federal workers.

While the government passed legislation to improve the rights of employees in the private sector throughout the first half of the twentieth century, little was done to improve the rights of workers in the public sphere. Collective bargaining remained virtually unheard of for federal employees for more than half the century. Indeed, it was not until 1962 that certain federal employees gained the right to engage in collective bargaining. President John F. Kennedy's Executive Order (EO) 10988 set strict guidelines for federal union activities but set the stage for legislation to come. This landmark EO began the growth of federal unionism, a movement that flourished in the following years.


  • 1942: The Declaration of the United Nations is signed in Washington, D.C.
  • 1947: Great Britain's Labour government nationalizes coalmines.
  • 1952: Among the cultural landmarks of the year are the film High Noon and the book The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
  • 1955: The Warsaw Pact is signed by the Soviet Union and its satellites in eastern Europe.
  • 1958: First U.S. satellite, Explorer I, goes into orbit.
  • 1962: As the Soviets begin a missile buildup in Cuba, for a few tense days in October it appears that World War III is imminent. President Kennedy calls for a Cuban blockade, forcing the Soviets to back down and ultimately diffusing the crisis.
  • 1962: Marilyn Monroe, who managed to graduate into serious roles after years of playing the sex kitten—only to devolve into drugs and depression—commits suicide.
  • 1962: Publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring heightens Americans' awareness of environmental issues.
  • 1965: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more than 2,600 others are arrested in Selma, Alabama. Three weeks later, in New York City, Malcolm X is assassinated.
  • 1967: Arabs attack Israel, launching the Six-Day War, which results in an Israeli victory.
  • 1971: With Supreme Court approval, U.S. communities adopt busing as a means of achieving racial integration in schools.
  • 1977: Punk rock explodes onto the scene in London and New York City.

Event and Its Context

Early History of Federal Unionism

Since very early in American history, federal employees encountered strong opposition to their quest for forming labor organizations. This opposition came not only from their employers but also the general public. Negative public opinion had a large impact on federal employees, since their direct supervisors "worked" for the public and, therefore, made many of their decisions based on political expediency and realities. In particular, the public feared government employees having the right to strike. In private industry a strike only occasionally affected an entire city or population, because it was usually centered on a specific trade or business. However, a strike in the public sector, such as one conducted by teachers or law enforcement officers, could have drastic or even dangerous effects for a community. The public's fear became reality on 9 September 1919, when the Boston police strike resulted in riots and looting on an unprecedented scale. According to Dennis Bechara, in Unions and Government Employment, Governor Calvin Coolidge fired all the strikers and refused to rehire them later, stating, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anytime, anywhere." His actions received overwhelming public approval.

The 1919 Boston police strike and similar events strengthened the public's belief that allowing federal employees to engage in unionism empowered them too greatly. Because civil employees provide essential public services, they in essence hold a monopoly on those services. Therefore, some people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries believed that public servants might blackmail the local, state, and federal government with the threat of strikes, at worst endangering whole communities and at least snarling vital services. Perhaps for this reason, federal employees found themselves unable to fight for their employment rights or engage in collective bargaining for much of this period.

The roots of collective bargaining for federal employees emerged from shaky ground. During the 1800s the whole concept of unionism was under constant attack by employers and the government. In some instances, such as the Philadelphia Cordwainers Conspiracy Cases in 1806, employee groups seeking better wages were found guilty of conspiracy, and their organizations were declared illegal. Poor working conditions and low wages were as prevalent in the public sector as they were in the private. However, while their counterparts in the private sector gained further rights, federal employees found themselves repeatedly hindered in their quest for improved working conditions and compensation. Some public departments actually went so far as to ignore labor laws completely or manipulate them to work in their favor. For example, the Post Office Department ignored the 1888 law requiring a maximum eight-hour workday. Postal workers found themselves facing 56-hour workweeks, including required shifts on Saturday and Sunday. Despite such opposition, federally oriented unions, such as the National Teachers Association (the precursor of today's National Education Association) in 1857 and the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) in 1889, did take shape. Unions such as these gained small victories for federal workers. The NALC, for example, sued the federal government as a direct result of the postal service's abuse of labor laws. In 1893 mail carriers were awarded $3.5 million in overtime claims as a result of their successful lawsuit.

However, further setbacks to federal unionism soon appeared. In 1890 the Sherman Antitrust Act struck a serious blow against collective bargaining in both the private and the public sectors. Originally enacted to regulate interstate trade and prevent the restraint of interstate and foreign trade, the Sherman Antitrust Act was soon expanded to oversee "wrongful" labor practices. Thus, labor unions found themselves under judicial attack and charged with conspiracy to disrupt and restrain trade by encouraging an employee's right to strike. Because federal agencies by their very nature were considered to hold a monopoly on their labor services, federally based unions became a prime target for antitrust "violations." Another setback followed twelve years later, when in 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt issued a gag order preventing all federal employees from lobbying Congress, directly or indirectly, for wage increases or similar legislation. This included lobbying through any association such as a union. Subsequently, presidential gag orders went so far as to prevent postal employees from publicly discussing their work conditions. Employees faced immediate termination if they violated these gag orders.

Pushing Forward but Left Behind

Between 1910 and 1920 several positive legislative changes strengthened the federal union movement. One signifi-cant change came with the Lloyd-La Follette Act of 1912. Since 1902 the NALC had been opposing President Roosevelt's gag order. Robert La Follette, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, took interest in their plight. Following a successful political campaign, La Follette's new act passed and repealed President Roosevelt's gag orders of 1902. In addition, the Lloyd-La Follette Act established that federal and postal workers possessed the right to organize unions. This law significantly changed the future rights of federal employees. During the same year, Congress passed the Reilly Eight-in-Ten Hour Act, preventing postal employees from being forced to spread their typical 8-hour shift over a consecutive 10-hour period. In addition, Congress passed the Mann Sunday Closing Act, requiring that post offices remain closed on Sunday. This effectively guaranteed that workers would receive a day off. Forced overtime, typically without pay, was finally moot in all but the rarest cases.

Further progress was made for federal unionism in 1914 with the Clayton Act. This act effectively eliminated the threat of the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act for unions, determining that antitrust laws were not applicable to labor organizations. According to the Center for the Advancement of Capitalism, "The labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce. Nothing contained in the antitrust laws shall be construed to forbid the existence and operation of labor … organizations … [nor are they] … illegal combinations or conspiracies in restraint of trade under the antitrust laws." Federal and postal unions were now free to conduct strikes without fear of prosecution for antitrust violations. Although considerable governmental pressure remained to prevent strikes, and no legislation supported this right, at the very least employees would no longer be fined or incarcerated because of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Another step forward came with the Federal Employees Compensation Act of 1916. Until that time workers were not guaranteed any form of compensation for injuries received during the course of their duties. This act was vitally important for postal workers, in addition to other federal employees. Post offices of the time were dangerous and unhealthy. Unsanitary conditions exposed workers to diseases like typhoid, while poor lighting and overcrowding increased the risk of injury. Death and serious injury were common for railway mail service workers as well. Before the Compensation Act, employees were lucky to receive small amounts of money to pay for funerals—and this pittance came only if the family relinquished their right to sue the offending party. Access to compensation and medical benefits greatly improved working conditions and the quality of life for federal employees.

Soon after the Federal Employees Compensation Act became law, Congress passed further legislation aimed at improving working conditions for federal employees. In 1920 the first Civil Service Retirement Act was passed, providing retirement annuities for employees at age 65. Until that time older employees found themselves being ousted from their jobs and facing the prospect of no income. Now employees no longer faced the very real prospect of poverty and destitution in their old age. During the same year, Congress enacted two other bills that provided sick-leave benefits and a wage increase for postal employees. Many of these legislative changes came about due to pressure on Congress for change exerted by unions such as the NALC.

A major step toward collective bargaining came in 1926. Although it focused primarily on interstate railway services, the Railway Labor Act provided the basis for later legislation. Under this act employers were required to engage in collective bargaining and were prohibited from discriminating against union members. In many ways the Railway Labor Act was the inspiration for the Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932 and similar laws to follow. In the case of the Norris-La Guardia Act, legislation supported the rights of employees to organize unions and engage in strikes. Employers were required to take part in collective bargaining or face possible legal sanctions. Finally, the law prohibited federal enforcement of the infamous "yellow dog" agreements, whereby employees gave up their right to be part of a union. This series of legislative measures culminated in 1935 with the passing of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

With the NLRA, or Wagner Act, unions and employees were provided legislative protection from interference, domination, discrimination, and retaliation from and by employers. In addition, employers could no longer refuse to engage in collective bargaining with regard to labor issues such as wages and conditions of employment. With the enactment of this legislation, unionism found its true foothold in the American labor force.

Unfortunately, the Wagner Act did not extend to the public sector, and the rights of federal, state, and local government employees remained unprotected and, in some cases, nonexistent. Indeed, despite the dramatic changes being made for unionism in the private sector, federal organizing was making very little headway. The closest federal workers had come to earning the right to bargain collectively took place in 1917. Naval yard unions began a working relationship with the assistant secretary of the navy, the metal trades department, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Because of this close relationship, the unions were allowed to arbitrate employment issues. Even so, union interaction such as this remained extremely rare. However, the seeds for federal unionism had been planted. As unionism grew in the private sector, federal employees looked on and hoped their efforts would bear fruit. Even so, their hopes were not realized until the 1960s, when the Kennedy administration took office.

President Kennedy and Executive Order 10988

According to Labor News and Views by the Human Resources Service Center, in 1962 "only about 1% of the federal workforce was organized." This statistic reflected the entire nation's prevailing attitude against unions of federal employees. Many people both in and out of the federal government believed that allowing public employees the right to engage in collective bargaining and strike against their supervisors essentially stripped their democratically elected employers of power. William Shaw explains in his book, Moral Issues in Business, "Government power includes the power … to fix the terms and conditions of government employment. This power cannot be … taken away. … [C]ollective bargaining is irreconcilable with the idea of sovereignty." As such, the presence of unionism in the public sector remained minimal. However, that attitude began to change by mid-century. In 1959 Wisconsin enacted legislation allowing collective bargaining in the public sector; the state effectively managed the law through their labor relations board. Based on the Wisconsin experience, the threat to government sovereignty appeared unfounded.

In a bold move, perhaps inspired by the progress made in Wisconsin and the value he placed on public service, President Kennedy signed Executive Order (EO) 10988 into effect on 17 January 1962. Officially titled Employee-Management Cooperation in the Federal Service, the EO essentially replaced the Lloyd-La Follette Act of 1912, and for the first time federal employees were awarded the right to join official unions freely and without fear of reprisal or discrimination from employers. Employee organizations could receive national and exclusive recognition through a nomination process. Once the organization received recognition, from that point forward, federal agencies were required to engage in collective bargaining with representatives of the recognized union. The EO also protected and upheld agreements reached during arbitration. The EO prompted local and state government employees to unionize as well. However, some restrictions to union activities remained, limiting the rights of federal employees. One important restriction prohibited employees from engaging in a strike. In addition, recognized employee organizations were restricted to collective bargaining with regard to work conditions and personnel policies only. Wage issues could not be discussed. Finally, agencies directly involved in national security, such as the FBI and the CIA, were exempted from the EO.

After EO 10988

Despite the restrictions placed on federal employees, President Kennedy's landmark EO removed the barriers to federal unionism. Unions quickly flourished in the public sector. According to a report from the Department of Economics at the University of Washington, the percentage of federal employees associated with bargaining organizations jumped from 24 percent in 1960 to 42 percent in 1976. Moreover, the percentage of local and state employees who belonged to labor organizations jumped from 5 percent in 1960 to 40 percent in 1976. EO 10988 also served as the blueprint for future legislation and spawned further improvements in the working conditions and compensation for federal employees.

In 1969 President Richard M. Nixon signed EO 11491, expanding and modifying President Kennedy's previous order. President Nixon's order attempted to move public collective bargaining practices closer to those seen in the private sector and established official recognition of the bargaining process and grievance procedures. In addition, the order established the Federal Labor Relations Council and the Federal Service Impasse Panel. However, the order retracted the right to use paid time off for labor negotiations set by President Kennedy's previous EO. Use of official time for negotiations was reinstated by the Civil Service Reform Act nine years later in 1978.

After President Kennedy's signing of Executive Order 10988, federal unionism took several positive steps forward. Further advances of the rights of public employees included the establishment of collective bargaining laws for educators and the transformation of the cabinet-level Post Office Department into the quasi-independent United States Postal Service. The trend toward collective bargaining in the public sector continued to grow into the early twenty-first century. Certainly the initial credit for expanding the rights of public-sector workers goes to President Kennedy, who embraced with intellectual idealism the possibility of positive change in federal labor relations offered by the signing of EO 10988 into law.

Key Players

Kennedy, John F. (1917-1963): In 1962, President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988, thereby allowing federal agencies to engage in collective bargaining. This landmark order changed decades of legislation that had previously weakened federal unionism.

La Follette, Robert M. (1855-1925): A founder of the Progressive movement, Senator La Follette supported the Lloyd-La Follette Act of 1912 in Congress, helping to retract the gag rules set by President Roosevelt's 1902 executive order and providing federal employees the right to organize unions.

Nixon, Richard M. (1913-1994): President Nixon expanded on President Kennedy's 1962 executive order when he signed Executive Order 11491. By doing so, he hoped to change public collective bargaining to match the process used in the private sector.

Roosevelt, Theodore (1858-1919): President Roosevelt issued a gag order in 1902 preventing federal employees from lobbying Congress for wage increases, improved working conditions, or similar concerns. His subsequent executive orders prevented postal employees from discussing their work conditions either publicly or with Congress.

See also: Boston Police Strike; Clayton Antitrust Act; Eight-hour Day Movement; Lloyd-La Follette Act; Sherman Antitrust Act; Wagner Act.



Shaw, William and Vincent Barry. Moral Issues in Business. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1997.


Human Resources Service Center. "Labor Relations in the Federal Government." Labor News and Views 3, no. 2 (2002): 2-3.

National Association of Letter Carriers. "10 Great Moments in Letter Carrier History." NALC Activist 10, no. 3 (1995).


Bechara, Dennis. Unions and Government Employment [cited28 October 2002]. <http://www.libertyhaven.com/politicsandcurrentevents/unionsandotherorganizations/unionsgovemploy.html>.

"Clayton Antitrust Act, 1914." Center for the Advancement of Capitalism [cited 28 October 2002]. <http://moraldefense.com/Campaigns/Antitrust/Other_Resources/Clayton_Act.htm>.

"Executive Order 10988: Employee-management Cooperation in the Federal Service." University of Michigan [cited 28 October 2002]. <http://www.lib.umich.edu/govdocs/jfkeo/eo/10988.htm>.

"Federal Labor Laws." Congressional Digest, 1993 [cited 28October 2002]. <http://eserver.org/history/us-laborlaw.txt>.

"Unions." University of Washington, Department of Economics [cited 28 October 2002]. <http://www.econ.washington.edu/user/Lundberg/443_99/2_25.pdf>.

—Lee Ann Paradise

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Federal Employees Gain Union Rights

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Federal Employees Gain Union Rights