Ralph de Juliis, the president of a union that represents Social Security workers in Oklahoma and Arkansas, said that the agency had begun trying to make changes unilaterally to employees’ jobs and working conditions — like specific assignments — that the union previously would have been consulted on.
Even as the pressure on workers increased, unions were at a new disadvantage in defending them. One of the executive orders instructed agencies to sharply reduce so-called official time — that is, the allotment of time for union officials to handle labor issues during work hours. At the Social Security Administration, roughly two dozen officials previously drew a full-time salary while spending most or all of their time on labor issues. The agency left them with no more than a few hours per week to devote to these responsibilities.
Jeremy Maske, the president of a 300-member local in Des Moines, was one of those union officials. After returning to agency work full time in July, he typically woke up about 5 a.m. and spent two hours responding to email about union-related business, then worked on labor matters for several hours in the evening. He went to bed around midnight or 1 a.m. “I feel like I’m in college again,” Mr. Maske said in an interview last month.
Some union officials reported that because grievance or arbitration proceedings typically take place during work hours, they chewed up scarce official time, sometimes making it impossible for union officials to attend. By contrast, the labor relations officials on the management side have no similar limits on the time they can devote to handling workers’ cases.
On Thursday, after the administration complied with the judge’s order, union officials were told that they would be allowed back into their offices on agency property and that their access to email and their official time would be restored.
But even with the reprieve for the union — and even if the judge’s ruling is sustained on appeal — experts said the agency could negotiate on its own to achieve most of Mr. Trump’s goals, in a process in which it ultimately holds the upper hand.
From a judge’s perspective, it may be nearly impossible to distinguish between an agency that takes a hard line with unions and workers at the behest of the president, and an agency that does so on its own initiative. And the latter may not be illegal.
“It’s not clear how they’re required to change their actual behavior,” said Jonathan Siegel, an expert on administrative law at George Washington University. “The legality of the action comes down to the motive with which the action is taken, and it’s difficult to know what the motive is.”