USDA, Staff Union Dispute Is Latest Among Federal Agencies

July 20, 2020, 7:41 PM

A disagreement between a U.S Department of Agriculture lawyers’ union and the agency’s general counsel is the latest in a series of labor disputes between the Trump administration and federal government unions.

The administration is looking to sideline labor representatives, the unions say, while agency officials say the groups in some cases are more interested in preserving the status quo than in improving how the government provides services to taxpayers.

Federal unions represent about half the nation’s 2.1 million civilian employees, and fundamental disagreements between the unions and the administration has led to conflicts across government over telework, “official time” for union representation activities, and, more recently, the safety of federal facilities as some agencies look to bring workers back to their offices.

Members of the union representing USDA Office of the General Counsel employees earlier this month voted down a proposed contract that came together through years of ongoing disputes and arbitration with the agency’s general counsel, Stephen Vaden.

Vaden’s office sent a letter to union leaders stating that the USDA would unilaterally impose the new collective bargaining agreement effective July 20.

“It is clear the Union has no intention of ratifying a successor agreement no matter its terms; and no matter whether they are imposed by the Panel or arrived at by the Parties through continued negotiations,” the letter states.

Leaders at Local 1106 of the American Federation of Government Employees say the move is one of many attempts agency leaders have made to weaken the union. Schedule flexibility, union representation in grievances, and other rights afforded in the prior contract that had been renewed since 2010 were stripped from the new agreement, said Joshua Rider, president of AFGE Local 1106. AFGE represents about 10,000 workers at USDA, which has a total of nearly 100,000 employees.

“This is management repudiating the right that unions have under the statute to ratify its agreement. I think it’s been a clear assault across the federal government on union organization and collective bargaining rights,” Rider said.

Vaden has been nominated by Trump to be a judge of the U.S. Court of International Trade. His office referred all questions to the USDA communications office. That office didn’t immediately respond.

Conflicts at Education, VA

The USDA isn’t the only agency that’s refused to bargain in good faith with the union, according to David Cann, the AFGE’s director of field services and education, and Cathie McQuiston, its deputy general counsel.

The Department of Education, which allegedly imposed a contract on AFGE Council 252 more than two years ago that led to a charge from the Federal Labor Relations Authority, is still refusing to enter into new labor talks, McQuiston said.

“They won’t bargain with us. That has not changed,” McQuiston said. Because the FLRA doesn’t have a general counsel in place to prosecute charges, the union has very little leverage to force the department to return to the bargaining table, she said.

The Education Department didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Department of Veterans Affairs imposed contract provisions on AFGE, leading to a dispute that’s being considered by the Federal Service Impasses Panel, Cann said.

In a filing earlier this month with the panel, the union’s VA Council alleged that the department isn’t bargaining in good faith over worker leave and other job-safety issues, and is instead seeking to impose a one-sided labor contract.

“AFGE has consistently fought for the status quo and opposed attempts to make VA work better for Veterans and their families. It’s no surprise that AFGE has taken the same approach with its refusal to accept commonsense improvements to its collective bargaining agreement,” VA spokeswoman Christina Noel said in a statement.

The impasses panel, an FLRA component, is tasked with helping federal agencies resolve labor disputes. However, federal employee unions say that the FSIP and the authority itself have been ineffective vehicles for getting agencies to adhere to federal labor law under Trump.

‘Change in Order of Magnitude’

Other Republican administrations have had fractious relationships with federal employee unions, but the Trump administration’s approach has focused much more than his predecessors on executive action, according to Marick Masters, a management professor and the director of Wayne State University’s labor studies program.

President George W. Bush sought to change collective bargaining at the Department of Defense by creating a new personnel system, which involved action from Congress, Masters said. The National Security Personnel System at the DOD was dismantled during President Barack Obama’s first term.

Trump’s approach, by contrast, is exemplified by the three executive orders the president issued in May 2018 that together made it harder for unions to represent federal workers, and by the generally contentious negotiations at federal agencies since January 2017, the professor said.

Instead of involving Congress to change the laws governing federal labor relations, the administration has sought to work around unions on an agency-by-agency basis, Masters said. The administration’s efforts got a boost in October 2019 when the three executive orders were fully restored by a federal appeals court, allowing agencies to move forward with enforcing the orders.

The appeals court overturned a lower court ruling that struck down large portions of the order, finding that that court didn’t have jurisdiction to do so.

“We have a change in order of magnitude from what’s happened before in moving ahead without having to involve unions, if they don’t concede to management’s viewpoint in an expedited manner,” he said.

This doesn’t mean that all federal agencies are necessarily at loggerheads with their unions, Masters said. “There are probably workplaces with good relationships, and they will quietly go about their business.”

Todd Dickey, assistant professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, also said the Trump administration’s approach appears to be unique.

“Prior to 2018 when the Department of Education made such a move, I had never seen a federal agency attempt to unilaterally implement an entire collective bargaining agreement outside of the normal process of negotiation and impasse resolution,” Dickey said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@bloomberglaw.com; Fatima Hussein in Washington at fhussein@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com

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