The Environmental Protection Agency is making unilateral changes to a collective bargaining agreement between the agency and its largest union.

A new seven-year labor contract between the EPA and Council 238 of the American Federation of Government Employees will be effective July 8, EPA Senior Labor Attorney Robert Coomber said in an email posted online by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington-based nonprofit. The contract, if it isn’t successfully challenged, would require AFGE to vacate its office space at the EPA and take away some of the union grievance and arbitration procedures used to challenge terminations, discipline, layoffs, and other adverse actions. In addition, it would cut the amount of time that union officials who are also EPA employees could spend assisting other workers and deprive the union of access to agency websites and bulletin boards that it currently uses to communicate with its members.

The agency is imposing the contract because the union is refusing to renegotiate a 2007 labor agreement, according to a senior career EPA official who asked not to be named. The two sides in 2016 tentatively agreed on a new contract, but union members rejected it, the official said.

“The agency has always been willing to bargain in good faith. Right now, the ball is in AFGE’s court,” the official said.

AFGE filed an unfair labor practice charge against the EPA on June 25 with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which oversees the labor relations program for the government’s 2.1 million civilian employees.

“On June 25, 2019, the Agency notified the Union of its intention to repudiate the 2007 Master Collective Bargaining Agreement along with the 2013 Groundrules and Addendum that were entered into by the parties to govern contract negotiations. Additionally, the Agency notified the Union of its intention to engage in bad faith bargaining by implementing a unilaterally imposed replacement ‘collective bargaining agreement’ on July 8, 2019,” the union said in asking the FLRA to stop the agency from taking the actions.

“The administration is hijacking the collective bargaining process to enforce illegal provisions that will make it harder for EPA employees to do their jobs,” AFGE Council 238 President Gary Morton said in a June 26 statement. “We are going to do everything we can to fight this injustice and defend EPA employees from these baseless attacks on their rights and jobs.”

AFGE, the largest federal union, represents a total of about 700,000 government workers, including about 9,000 EPA employees.

Latest Federal Labor Dispute

The action by the EPA is the latest in a series of disputes between federal agencies and their unions under the Trump administration. At the Department of Education, whose employees also are represented by AFGE, the union is contesting the unilateral imposition of a new labor contract. The FLRA said last July that it had found sufficient evidence to file a charge, which means the FLRA found preliminary evidence to support the union’s allegations. The FLRA, which is still awaiting Senate confirmation of a general counsel who would be charged with pursuing charges with merit, hasn’t taken further action.

“This is a governmentwide trend to take actions that end up demoralizing and weakening the federal workforce,” said PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney.

EPA employees, including those who aren’t union members, are telling PEER that they are “devastated” by the agency’s action, Whitehouse said. It sends a message that employees’ views aren’t valued, he said.

Disagreement Over Scope of Bargaining

The June 24 email from Coomber said the AFGE refused to bargain over changes to its existing 2007 “Master Collective Bargaining Agreement” beyond five “articles” that the two sides in 2013 opened to further bargaining.

“On May 31, 2018, the Agency gave the Union notice to renegotiate the 2007 MCBA. Between then and now, the Agency has sent the Union written communications (July 25, 2018 and May 8, 2019) and engaged in multiple discussions with the Union’s two Chief Negotiators describing the Agency’s position that the entirety of the MCBA is subject to negotiation. AFGE has continuously asserted that only five articles—previously opened pursuant to 2013 Ground Rules—are subject to negotiation,” Coomber wrote.

The AFGE is likely to take further action to counter the EPA’s action, Whitehouse said. In the meantime, however, the rules for issues covered by the CBA will remain uncertain, he said.