Home / General / This Day in Labor History: January 17, 1962

This Day in Labor History: January 17, 1962


On January 17, 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988, granting federal employees the right to collective bargaining for the first time. Full text here. This began the last great period of union growth in American history to the present.

Public sector workers were not granted collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act; as great as that law was for American labor, there were actually a number of important categories of workers left out, including agricultural labor and government workers. Throughout the 1950s, the labor movement fought for public sector unionism, which began to move liberal Democratic politicians toward accepting it. In the 1950s, the mayors of Philadelphia and New York (the latter being Robert Wagner Jr., son of the author of the NLRA), created bargaining for municipal employees while Wisconsin instituted the first collective bargaining for state employees in 1959 and then expanded a few days before Kennedy’s 1962 executive order.

Kennedy’s move came after his administration issued the Task Force on Employee-Management Relations in the Federal Service in 1961, which noted, “The participation of employees in the formation and implementation of employee policy and procedures affecting them contributes to the effective conduct of public business,” and argued that collective bargaining was in the general public interest. Executive Order 10988 provided multiple tiers of representation for federal employees, depending on how much of a bargaining unit was organized but provided some level of consulting so long as a union had a mere 10% of the bargaining unit.

Kennedy’s order was a major breakthrough. But it also was used to cut off the Rhodes-Johnston Union Recognition Bill, would likely would have granted the closed shop to government employees. That bill would have granted union recognition and collective bargaining by law rather than through executive favor. Yet union leaders were not too upset about it and still considered the order a pretty major victory.

The order also put some pretty severe limits on the bargaining power of these workers. First, collective bargaining was limited to non-wage issues. That’s a pretty big deal. They were also still denied the right to strike (the original denial of federal employes to strike came in the Taft-Hartley Act and this just perpetuated it), something which chafed at these workers and which the air traffic controllers would test in 1981 (although other federal workers had successfully struck earlier with great success, including the postal workers in 1970), much to their peril. Until 1978, government employees even had to take unpaid leave to attend collective bargaining sessions, severely disincentivizing active involvement in union operations. Finally, the executive order allowed for no resolution to bargaining impasses except for unilateral employer decisions. A problematic situation to say the least, one solved by future expansion upon Kennedy’s declaration by Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

Despite these restrictions, union membership skyrocketed in the following decades throughout all levels of government work. For federal employees, the National Federation of Federal Employees became the major labor organization representing them. This spurred organizing on the state and local level as well, with unions like SEIU and especially AFSCME growing rapidly during the 1960s and 1970s. Among the strikes associated with AFSCME was the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, famous for its role in the assassination of Martin Luther King, And as William Dougan, president of the NFFE says:

Collective bargaining has made inestimable gains in the quality of work life for millions of federal workers over the past half-century. Top-down decisions on safety and health matters, work schedules, reorganizations and many other workplace issues have been replaced with a collaborative process where workers have a definitive voice in how they accomplish their mission.

On the state level, 16 states enacted collective bargaining legislation for their employees over the next few years, though conservative states in the south and west resisted this trend.

It would take a great deal of work in the 1970s and 1980s to achieve these victories. Kennedy’s Executive Order hardly did it for them. But without this opening, public sector unionism might have had a serious delay. Today, approximately 63% of federal workers are union members, although a much lower percentage of state workers have achieved union representation largely due to resistance in the South.

Although this is not a particularly famous episode within American labor history, it’s worth noting how much conservatives hate Executive Order 10988. We know conservatives see public sector unions as the enemy. Having destroyed private sector unionism, the continued strong public sector unions are their next target. Some make the disingenuous argument that they are FINE with private sector unions but the people working for THE PEOPLE don’t have this right. Others are more honest–unions support Democrats so they suck. Here’s Daniel Henninger making this argument in a 2010 Wall Street Journal article. So long as these public sector unions exist, they are a hope for workers everywhere and a thorn in the side of Republicans seeking a plutocratic hegemony over the American workforce.

This is the 48th post in this series. The rest are archived here.

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  • JoyfulA

    According to a federal union rep* I worked with on an EAP, one big problem as far as promotions, combining jobs, and the like was security levels. As in “We can’t propose this job be the backup to that job because the incumbent’s security level isn’t high enough.”

    This was DoD, and it wouldn’t apply to many areas of government, but it’s interesting in how complicated things can be.

    *He was a former police officer and in that job was a union rep, too.

  • Rich C

    Great post! Thanks! Would you consider doing a post on how Obama could use executive power to make it easier for private sector workers to organize, even in the absense of legislation?

    • Bruce Vail

      One thing that Obama could do is reform the federal government contracting system to deny federal contract to companies that break labor law.

      This was promised back in 2009. I wonder what ever happened to that initiative? I think it was called “High Road Contracting” or something like that.

      • Bruce Vail

        I’m no labor lawyer, but if Kennedy had the legal authority to extend labor rights to federal employees in 1962, then Obama might have the legal right to extend new labor rights to private sector health care workers under Obamacare.

        Any qualified labor lawyers out there want to chime in?

      • The Administration had written it up a high road contracting order but in response to the 2010 elections they refused to issue it. This is odd, because as CAP pointed out at the time, executive action was the only way to move forward in the face of a Tea Party House.

        Now, I’m critical of the WH for this, but its notable that almost no one has talked about this issue or complained. This is a failure of outside groups, unions and our allies in Congress too.

  • Bruce Vail

    The Executive Order was made law in 1978 when Jimmy Carter signed a civil service reform act that recognized the limited union rights of federal employees:


  • greylocks

    Totally OT and unrelated…

    Today is also the anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens, which rarely gets the attention that some other battles of the American Revolution do, but should.

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