President Trump’s Labor Day contempt for workers


August 31, 2018

It’s Labor Day Weekend. President Trump has just ordered a pay freeze for federal workers to start in January. Although of course his action is particularly brazen coming just before a national celebration of workers, it is far from the only expression of contempt for workers coming out of the Trump Administration.

Here’s what he did: to prevent existing law from automatically raising federal worker pay by 2.1 percent, accompanied by a large additional increase in “locality” pay (to address disparities with higher paid private sector workers), Trump sent a letter to Congress saying he would carry out an alternative pay adjustment plan. He wrote:

“Title 5, United States Code, authorizes me to implement alternative plans for pay adjustments for civilian Federal employees covered by the General Schedule and certain other pay systems if, because of “national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare,” I view the increases that would otherwise take effect as inappropriate… Specifically, I have determined that for 2019, both across‑the‑board pay increases and locality pay increases will be set at zero.”

If in addition to Labor Day parades around the country, somewhere there is Hypocrisy on Parade, this statement could be a prominent float. The day before his pay freeze announcement, the President happily cited 4.2 percent economic growth in the second quarter. “Our country is doing great!” he tweeted, according to the Wall Street Journal. But a day later, we had serious economic conditions and had to zero out a federal worker pay increase “to put our Nation on a fiscally sustainable course.”

Because Congress has failed to set pay increase levels at least since 2013, President Obama and now President Trump have used this Title 5 authority to limit the size of the increase. Between 2011-2013, Obama did cite actual serious post-recession economic conditions and suspended pay increases. More recently, he set modest increases. Trump would freeze salaries in another attempt to weaken labor and to pay for some of the nearly $2 trillion in tax cuts that are now deepening the deficit.

Congress can undo this decision if it enacts the Senate version of the Financial Services appropriations bill, which includes a 1.9 percent salary increase. The House, however, did not include any increase in its version, and would have reduced federal worker pay by requiring them to pay more towards their retirement funds. If the differences cannot be resolved, President Trump’s freeze order will stand.

For Labor Day and in the days thereafter, members of Congress should commit to enacting the Senate’s modest 1.9 percent increase. (You should encourage them – send your Rep. and Senators a quick note here.) Private sector worker wages and salaries are rising – 2.9% in the second quarter above the previous year. On the other hand, as American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) National President J. David Cox pointed out, “Federal employees have had their pay and benefits cut by over $200 billion since 2011, and they are earning nearly 5 percent less today than they did at the start of the decade.”

What are those other Trumpian expressions of contempt for workers? Too numerous to mention all of them, but a Trump Executive Order attempted to decimate federal workers’ collective bargaining rights, fortunately to be reversed by a federal court. Celebrating the court decision for federal workers, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)’s President Lee Saunders said “Today’s decision empowers them to continue doing their work in the public interest, free of cronyism and partisanship, faithful to facts and the rule of law.” (AFSCME is a member of the Coalition on Human Needs; we are proud of that.) The Administration has worked to roll back protections related to overtime pay for certain private sector workers. And all those attempts to impose work requirements on people enrolled in Medicaid, SNAP, or public housing? Pious Administration statements about the “importance and dignity of work” mask the real motivation: erect enough barriers to receiving assistance and people will lose that assistance, even though a great many of them are working. In Ohio, a recent study of 19-64 year-olds in the Medicaid expansion population found that 94 percent were either working or would be exempt from a proposed work requirement. But if a state requires frequent documentation of hours of work, that will be an insurmountable roadblock for some. The Trump Administration is intent on approving such roadblocks. Here too, they have met with federal court opposition, but they are trying to circumvent that.

So, on this Labor Day weekend, let’s remember that Trump’s attacks on federal workers and low-income workers are all of a piece. All are intended to slash federal spending, ostensibly to reduce the tax cut-induced deficit, but really to weaken workers and public services. Congress should reject the attacks. Please remind them, here.