Federal workers in the United States are bound by law to not strike, and many union leaders claim their workers "believe in public service" and "they’re not just going to walk away".

Given that disruption of regular services is the most potent weapon in any union's arsenal, what kind of leverage do federal workers' unions really have?

Edit: It appears a mass "sickout" is a possible way to circumvent the legal definition of a "strike" to cause work stoppage:

A "sickout", or (especially by uniformed police officers) "blue flu", is a type of strike action in which the strikers call in sick. This is used in cases where laws prohibit certain employees from declaring a strike. Police, firefighters, air traffic controllers, and teachers in some U.S. states are among the groups commonly barred from striking usually by state and federal laws meant to ensure the safety or security of the general public.

  • I would guess/speculate that revealing information to opposition party members might be a potential source of leverage, but I'm not really familiar. Jan 17, 2019 at 5:12
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    Not all agencies deal with information that would be politically damaging to reveal, and may not have an opposition party to reveal it to. An example would be the Social Security Administration.
    – Elle Fie
    Jan 17, 2019 at 22:59
  • Well they could reveal it to the current opposition party that is in opposition to the administration. And the fact that not all of them can do it would be why they're in a union. But again, I'm just speculating. Without evidence all I'm saying is pretty much worthless. Jan 18, 2019 at 2:53
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    @magnus.orion That kind of tactic could possibly land the worker in some serious legal trouble. As leverage, it's pretty useless and it'd be pretty easy to paint the union/workers as practicing extortion. Feb 25, 2019 at 4:10

1 Answer 1


The Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute (FSLMRS) that you've linked in your question actually spells it out when it comes to what federal employees can legally do when it comes to collective bargaining. "The Statute" came about after the passing of the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978 under the Carter administration.

Under the CSRA, the strike was taken away from federal employees. The new legal framework codified similar collective bargaining rights for federal employees as private sector workers have under the NLRA, but like a lot of US labor history the establishment of a cohesive legal framework for labor relations removed key mechanisms that have been traditionally used throughout US history to disrupt production.

Federal employees are entitled to form and/or affiliate with a union and, by law, the government must negotiate with the union the workers elect to be represented by. The union then becomes the sole representative of the workers' 'bargaining unit'. Through unions like the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), the National Association of Government Employees (NAGE), and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), union officials negotiate with management on issues of personnel policies, practices, and matters that affect working conditions. Employees cannot negotiate around anything that is "specifically provided for by Federal statute" (page 3). This means that issues around wages/salaries, retirement benefits, and healthcare aren't negotiable through the union.

Beyond standard negotiations, federal workers, through their representation, may file a case with the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA)--the US government's internal version of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). If the government violates any of the rights laid out under the FSLMRS, the worker(s) may file an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP). Conversely, if the union violates any of the management rights outlined in the FSLMRS, a ULP may be filed against them instead. This process takes a great deal of times and has to escalate several times before it reaches an FLRA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Without going into too much detail, the judge decides whether or not a complaint has merit and decides what relief, if any, is granted.

Now, legally speaking, that's all the leverage that federal employees have. The sickout method you've described above is a method of direct action, but it isn't legally protected. This means that actions like these have to be worker-led with the workers potentially facing penalization. Even picketing under the FSLMRS is restricted to 'informational' picketing (pages 26, 46)--a form of protest that may be utilized so long as it doesn't impact the operations of the agency. Even then, the law aims to prevent what's known as 'self-help' tactics until all FLRA measures have been exhausted. If a union tried to authorize any direct action (like a sickout), they would likely have an ULP filed against them and the FLRA has historically ruled in favor of the government.

If you'd like more information on what it looks like for federal workers, the AFGE provides a comprehensive look at the collective bargaining process from their end.

For more information on the history of direct action as used by labor, the Industrial Workers of the World have a storied history of it. libcom.org also provides a guide to worker-led direct action.

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