Union membership and activity among federal government employees can be traced to the early days of this country. The first formation of national unions of federal civil service employees began in the late 19th Century. Employees of Naval shipyards and Army arsenals organized into unions sometime in the early part of the 19th Century. The first federal government employee work stoppage occurred in 1835 and 1836 when employees at the Washington and Philadelphia Navy yards struck for the 10-hour day and for general redress of their grievances. The National Association of Letter Carriers was established in 1889 as the first national postal union.
In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) and created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to administer the Act which established for the first time the policy that “employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively.” This law applied only to private sector employees. Formal recognition of labor-management relations in the federal government was not established until January 1962, when President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988. This order represented the first government-wide policy on collective bargaining in the federal government. It recognized collective bargaining as a right of certain Federal employees and marked a major reversal of policy toward unionism in the federal sector. Although the terms of the Order prohibited strikes and mandated that all agreements entered into must meet civil service regulations, the stage was set for further inroads. As one commentator put it “Kennedy’s Executive Order triggered a series of bargaining laws for public employees in states with substantial private sector unionism like Michigan, New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Only a dozen state governments, mostly in the South and West, do not have some kind of mandatary bargaining law to promote public employee unions today.
In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon issued Executive Order 11491 which expanded the representational rights of unions and employees. It also established the Federal Service Impasse Panel, the Assistant Secretary of Labor Management Relations, and the Federal Labor Relations Council (FLRC) to administer the labor relations program. The significance of this new executive order was that it provided third party machinery for the resolution of disputes and established a central authority for policy setting.
The Carter administration passed the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. This Act was intended to encompass a wide variety of management reforms including creation of the Office of Personnel Management, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), and the Federal Labor Relations Authority to replace the former U.S. Civil Service Commission. The Act also established the SES, the productivity-related merit pay system for GS-13 to GS-15 employees, and provided explicit protection for “whistle-blowers” and employees calling attention to government malpractice.
Today many federal employee unions exists. (See the list of federal unions)