Know Your Facts: The Civil Service Reform Act


We often don’t understand the connection between laws passed long ago and our day-to-day lives. You won’t find it on an episode of Drunk History but the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) affects your work life every day.

Among other things, the law codified merit systems principles and created a framework to resolve disputes involving them—a structure that remains in place and continues to benefit federal employees like you.

Here are a few things you should know about the CSRA.

Question: What are merit systems principles?

Answer: In a nutshell, they require federal personnel decisions to be based on employee merit. Federal employees cannot be hired, promoted, demoted or fired based on whom you know, whom you’re related to, whom you did or did not bribe or other such corrupt practices that are commonplace in many other countries. Under the merit system, federal jobs must be filled through open and fair competition and personnel actions must only be based on employees’ knowledge, skills, abilities and performance.

Q: What are some other highlights of the CSRA?

A: It gives federal employees the right to have union representatives present during disciplinary investigations. It requires federal agencies to give struggling employees a “reasonable opportunity” to improve their performance before proposing demotion or termination.  The law continued to require agencies to give advance notice to employees before taking any disciplinary action; employees have the right to respond. The CSRA made union-negotiated collective bargaining agreements enforceable through binding arbitration, giving contracts the force of law. Also, thanks to CSRA, federal employees have the right to challenge personnel decisions by filing grievances.

Q: Did federal employees gain the right to unionize under CSRA?

A: Not exactly. They first got that right in 1962, when President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988 allowing federal employees to form, join or assist unions. The CSRA codified that right, meaning it cannot be rescinded by the President alone.  When passing the CSRA, Congress specifically recognized that employees organizing and bargaining collectively serves the public interest.

Q: What agencies did the CSRA create?

A: The two main independent agencies are the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA). The MSPB hears appeals of serious disciplinary actions against employees and decides whether the employer engaged in discrimination, nepotism, whistleblower retaliation, political coercion or some other “prohibited personnel practice.” The FLRA was set up to resolve disputes between labor unions and federal agencies, conduct union elections and to make sure collective bargaining is carried out in good faith.

The fact is that workplace protections, the goal of transparency in civil service, and many of the benefits federal employees have today were created by government and union leaders who came before us. I applaud the work they did and hope we can continue to keep the federal workforce as one of the most professional and respected civil-service systems in the world.

Tony Reardon is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here. He is National President of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 employees in 31 agencies.

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