Influential public sector unions are pushing back on a new vaccination requirement for federal workers in a rare split with the Biden administration.
President Biden’s latest vaccine push, announced Thursday, requires federal employees to attest that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or be subject to masking, social distancing and weekly testing.
While labor groups representing government employees have urged their members to get vaccinated, most of the leading public sector unions either oppose the vaccine requirement or say it must first be negotiated.
Groups representing educators, postal workers, law enforcement officers, Treasury Department personnel and other government employees expressed unease about the vaccine requirement this week. Only a few public sector unions outright endorsed the measure.
“We expect that the particulars of any changes to working conditions, including those related to COVID-19 vaccines and associated protocols, be properly negotiated with our bargaining units prior to implementation,” Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents nearly 700,000 workers, said in a statement.
Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said requiring vaccinations “is not the American way and is a clear civil rights violation no matter how proponents may seek to justify it.”
National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon said in a statement that the group has “a lot of questions about how this policy will be implemented and how employee rights and privacy will be protected.”
Most of the public sector unions that expressed concern over the new vaccine rule endorsed Biden’s election bid in 2020 and cheered his overall efforts to bolster a federal workforce that former President Trump often targeted with criticism and spending cuts.
But their support for Biden is not extending to his vaccine rule, which doesn’t apply to the much larger private sector.
“In order for everyone to feel safe and welcome in their workplaces, vaccinations must be negotiated between employers and workers, not coerced,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement earlier this week. The group represents educators and health care workers at various levels of government.
The American Postal Workers Union said “it is not the role of the federal government to mandate vaccinations for the employees we represent” and that any new rules for its workers must be discussed with union leaders.
Experts say the responses from unions aren’t entirely surprising.
“As a matter of principle, union leaders just don’t like anything called a ‘mandate’ that comes from management where they’re cut out of the bargain,” said Daniel DiSalvo, professor and chair of political science at the Colin Powell School at the City College of New York–CUNY.
The White House anticipated that unions would want a seat at the table on the new requirement. The administration’s own task force on workplace safety wrote in a memo Thursday that “agencies are reminded to satisfy applicable collective bargaining obligations” when implementing new vaccine rules.
Still, public sector unions’ demands could slow Biden’s federal vaccination campaign, and their resistance indicates that similar efforts by states and municipalities could face roadblocks as well.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced earlier this week that municipal workers must get vaccinated or be tested weekly. He quickly encountered pushback from unions representing first responders, which said that about half of their members were vaccinated, lower than the city average.
“The internal structure of unions forces this kind of responsiveness to the membership,” DiSalvo said. “If you’re a union leader, you need to represent all employees.”
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the nation’s largest public employee union, did not respond to a request for comment about its position on vaccine requirements.
A handful of national unions backed Biden’s order this week. The American Foreign Service Association, a union that represents foreign service officers, welcomed the measure, citing last month’s COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, a union that represents 25,000 federal workers at NASA, the Justice Department, the Government Accountability Office and other agencies, also backed Biden’s order.
“We don’t think either our members or their mission should be placed at risk by those who have been hesitant to take a shot,” Paul Shearon, the group’s president, said in a statement.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka endorsed a mask mandate in an interview with C-SPAN on Tuesday, contradicting some of his member unions.
“If you come back in and you’re not vaccinated, everybody in that workplace is jeopardized,” he said. “If we don’t know whether you have been vaccinated or not, we can’t make the proper accommodations to make sure that you are protected and everyone else is protected.”
Biden’s order would affect millions of workers between federal employees and government contractors. Earlier this week, the Department of Veterans Affairs required its front-line health care workers to be vaccinated, and Biden has asked the Pentagon to examine “how and when” it will require service members to get the vaccine.
“With incentives and mandates, we can make a huge difference and save a lot of lives,” Biden said in a speech Thursday.
The urgency comes as the highly contagious delta variant spreads rapidly in areas of the U.S. with low vaccination rates.
Biden wants the private sector to follow his lead and encourage the remaining 31 percent of U.S. adults who have yet to receive at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Several companies have announced vaccine mandates in recent weeks, including Google, Shake Shack, Netflix, Morgan Stanley and Delta Air Lines.