The Federal Labor Relations Authority is considering whether federal agency heads should be allowed to “review the legality” of expiring collective bargaining agreements when the contracts have carry-over provisions keeping them in force until a new agreement is reached.
That would give agencies the authority to make changes “even if they conflict with a preexisting agreement,” the FLRA said.
The agency is charged with protecting federal workers’ union rights. The action was prompted by the Agriculture Department, which requested guidance on what to do with union contracts that continue in force until a new agreement is reached, a process that can drag on for months and sometimes years.
Agency heads already can review the legality of collective bargaining agreements that automatically renew for a new term.
“USDA asks for a general statement holding that, if an expiring agreement continues in force during renegotiations, then an agency head may review the legality of the expiring agreement as early as the agency head could review an expiring agreement that was renewed automatically for a fixed term. Comments are solicited on whether the Authority should issue a general statement, and, if so, what the Authority’s policy or guidance should be,” the FLRA said.
The proposal comes as the USDA is moving two of its agencies—the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture—from Washington, D.C., to the Kansas City region. Employees at the ERS and NIFA both recently voted to be represented by the American Federation of Government Employees.
Labor disputes across the government are heating up as the administration continues to enforce three recently revived executive orders, first issued in May 2018, that make it harder for unions to represent employees at federal agencies. There are about 2.1 million federal workers, about half of whom are represented by unions.
AFGE, which is bargaining with the USDA over a new labor contract that would cover food safety inspectors, said it’s “surprised and disappointed that the USDA would make this request.”
“The current contract, which the USDA agreed to, clearly states that the existing agreement will remain in force until a new agreement is signed. There is no valid reason to deviate from what the law and contract require. AFGE does not support this request nor does AFGE support any attempt by USDA to evade its legal and contractual obligations,” AFGE National Secretary-Treasurer Everett Kelley said.
The department is seeking the guidance to make sure it “properly follows federal labor law,” a USDA spokesperson said in an email. “This process is meant to clarify the law and ensure that Federal agencies have correct legal guidance before acting. We look forward to receiving the FLRA’s guidance.”
The Agriculture Department has about 100,000 employees. AFGE, the largest federal union, represents a total of about 700,000 workers.
Comments on the FLRA proposal are due by Feb. 24.