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Presidents and Labor: John F. Kennedy and Executive Order 10988

Whereas government employment positions had once been the subject of patronage appointments that besieged Presidents and others with a herd of "office seekers", civil service reform had put an end to those days. Government employees began to form unions, with the first being Post Office workers, who formed the National Association of Letter Carriers started in 1889. But unionization among government workers did not really become popular until the late 1950s. In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt made the following statement about government employees and unions:

"All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters. Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable."



By the late 1950s some states began to permit the formation of unions for state employees, with the first state to allow the practice being Wisconsin in 1959. Real change came about in 1962 when President John F. Kenned signed Executive Order 10988, which formally recognized the right of federal employees bargain collectively with their employer. Previously they were prohibited from doing so because of the 1935 Wagner Act. Worker later won the right to join unions and other organizations of workers, but they were not permitted to strike. Doing so was explicitly prohibited in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act. The same legislation prohibited Federal employees from joining the leadership of a union.

Kennedy issued the order as Congress was contemplating the passage of the Rhodes-Johnson Union Recognition bill, which would have given more power to federal employee unions. The order permitted government agencies to form informal relationships with employee organizations, provided that they were not found to be corrupt or undemocratic. It did not allow federal workers to strike, but provided that if an impasse was reached, it could be resolved by appeals to mediators. His order stated that it did not apply to intelligence agencies and it also gave department heads the right to limit the order's application only to employees in the United States. So, for example, persons working in embassies might not be covered by the order.



In the decades that followed the 60s, union membership increased significantly within the public service. By 2009, membership in public sector unions surpassed membership of private sector unions in the United States for the first time. In 2011 states faced a growing fiscal crisis, and public sector unions came under heavy attack especially in Wisconsin, as well as Indiana, New Jersey and Ohio.
Tags: franklin delano roosevelt, john f. kennedy, labor
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