President Donald Trump campaigned touting broad support from law enforcement. But there were thousands absent from his camp: federal correctional officers and other prison employees, who union leaders say might breathe a sigh of relief if Trump loses the White House. They said his administration has left them short-staffed, made working conditions more dangerous and undermined union protections.
The union endorsed Joe Biden, who on Thursday maintained his lead in key battleground states as vote counting continued. Union leaders said they hope Biden will prevail, roll back Trump’s labor policies and maybe even replace the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, who has faced criticism for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“These are astronomical implications for us,” said Kareen Troitino, a corrections officer and union president at a federal prison in Miami. Trump “claims he is pro-law enforcement, but he is crippling federal employees. If he gets another four years he will destroy our union.”
That prison guards would shift their support away from a president who randomly tweets “LAW & ORDER” may seem counterintuitive, but there have been signs along the way.
The American Federation of Government Employees—the union that represents 700,000 federal workers, including more than 30,000 at the Bureau of Prisons—said internal surveys of its members gave the former vice president a 30-point lead over Trump. The surveys did not offer a breakdown of prison employees, and union representatives acknowledge some prison workers still support the president.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Prison union officials said the problems began in early 2017, when Trump started off his term with a temporary federal hiring freeze, followed by a job-cutting budget that left some prisons desperately understaffed.
Federal prisons lost 12 percent of their workforce in the first two years of the Trump administration, which forced Bureau of Prison officials to use plumbers, case managers, cooks and other employees as correctional officers. “The effect of that came with the Jeffrey Epstein suicide,” Troitino said. Epstein, the wealthy financier accused of child sex trafficking, killed himself in a New York City federal facility in 2019, when the two employees in charge of monitoring him fell asleep.
Morale took another hit at the start of 2019 during a 35-day federal government shutdown, when the prison system furloughed nearly half its staff and asked the rest to keep working without pay as Trump feuded with Congress over funding for a border wall.
Trump has also reduced staffing at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a move prison workers decried during a pandemic that has prompted repeated workplace safety complaints at individual prisons, and accusations from the union that the Bureau flouted CDC guidelines and worsened the spread of the virus. Given the understaffing at OSHA, prison union officials say their complaints have gotten few results. Biden has promised to fill OSHA vacancies, and the union hopes that would bring more meaningful safety oversight.
Some prison workers also took heart in Biden’s promise to end the federal government’s use of private prisons, which they see as less safe for both prisoners and staff. The Obama administration had announced plans to phase out those facilities, which include 11 prisons and contract facilities that often hold prisoners in transit. But in a February 2017 memo, Trump’s then-attorney general, Jeff Sessions, reversed that move, saying the Bureau needed those beds to meet future needs.
But the biggest sticking point, prison union leaders say, is that Trump has been profoundly anti-union. They cited three executive orders issued in 2018 that chewed away at union rights by limiting contract negotiations, making it easier to fire workers and restricting how much paid time employees can use handling union issues.
Labor expert Lee Adler, who teaches at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said union officials are right to be worried.
“The president has excavated this highly unionized landscape and scraped it essentially to its bare bones,” he said, calling Trump’s actions a “dismemberment of the ability of workers” to have representation. “This is terribly unsettling to union officials because their members are being treated as if there’s no union there.”
Trump has also filled two out of three decision-making positions on the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which settles labor dispute appeals. Those appointees have overseen an authority that’s become quick to overturn any arbitration decisions that favored workers, according to a 2019 lawsuit by another union accusing the three-member panel of “unprecedented” bias. In its response, the agency described the allegations as “wild factual and legal claims,” and a federal court ultimately tossed the case saying it lacked jurisdiction.
After the current members’ five-year terms expire, union leaders hope Biden could appoint more worker-friendly replacements.
There’s one other thing union officials repeatedly said they would want from a Biden administration: New leadership at the Bureau of Prisons. Director Michael Carvajal has drawn criticism for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and union leaders said they see him as a “yes-man” following the will of Attorney General William Barr.
“There’s no accountability with Carvajal—he was supposed to speak in October to Congress and he didn’t,” said Joe Rojas, the prison union’s Southeast regional vice president. “Everyone from the wardens to the regional directors knows that Carvajal is done if Biden wins.”
The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment.
Whether Biden would live up to the hopes of federal prison staff remains to be seen. Aside from promising to fill OSHA vacancies and end private prisons, Biden has also vowed to better staff the Bureau of Prisons and to roll back the three Trump executive orders the union hates so much.
Biden and running mate Kamala Harris “are pro union, they’re pro federal worker,” said Aaron McGlothin, a prison staffer and local union leader at the federal prison in Mendota, California. “If you look at Trump’s agenda for the last four years, it was all about ‘draining the swamp'. But he never meant the political figures in Washington—he meant the federal workers on the front lines. In a matter of a few years he’s turned everything against us.”