PowerPost | Perspective
March 16, 2018 at 7:00 AM
The Education Department is attempting to enforce a “collective bargaining agreement” on a union that does not agree.
The department’s move to foist a contract on the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is the Trump administration’s latest and most dramatic attack on federal labor organizations and has implications far beyond the 3,900 employees the union represents at the department.
This bold stroke could herald what federal unions across the government might encounter from an administration bent on belittling them.
Last week, the department notified Council 252, which represents Education employees, that the agency was unilaterally imposing a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which union members had overwhelming rejected, effective Monday of this week. Though called an “agreement,” the union hotly disagrees with the terms of the contract and the way it was imposed.
Each side blames the other for a breakdown in contract negotiations.
Defending its peremptory action, an Education Department statement said that the “Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) has repeatedly ruled that a union’s failure to timely respond to an Agency notice waives the union’s right to bargain and the Agency is then free to implement.”
But in an unfair labor practice complaint filed with the FLRA, the AFGE blames the agency for failing “to negotiate and bargain in good faith.”
Saying “the so-called ‘collective bargaining agreement’ … is an illegal management edict,” a union statement said it “guts employee rights, including those addressing workplace health and safety, telework, and alternative work schedules.” Provisions on workplace discrimination, performance appraisals, compensation, child care and training “have all been deleted and replaced with nothing.”
The union’s absence from the agreement is symbolized by the old AFGE logo the department used on the document’s cover page. Union officials said the red, blue, green and yellow logo had not been used for years. The current one is blue and gold.
AFGE charged the department with attempted union busting.
“Secretary Betsy DeVos and her management team are attempting to strip employees of their collective bargaining rights and kill the union,” said AFGE Council 252 President Claudette Young. The union “is, and has been, eager to return to the table to negotiate a fair and just contract, which all employees deserve.”
In a written notice to Young, the department sounded like a conquering power dictating terms to the vanquished.
The March 9 memorandum from Samantha Cutler, the department’s director of workforce relations, evicted union officials from agency office space as of April 11, demanded union leaders turn in agency equipment including computers, printers and cellphones by March 26, and sharply restricted the amount of “official time” union leaders can spend on labor relations.
“The Agency looks forward to working with the Union,” Cutler added with no hint of sarcasm, “as we prepare for and implement the new CBA.”
“We understand the implementation of the new CBA will bring challenges and changes to the way labor relations matters were handled in the past,” she said in a separate memo to agency supervisors of union officials.
The department’s contract is part of a pattern demonstrating the administration’s disdain for organized labor.
In September, President Trump initiated his assault with an executive order abolishing labor-management forums, created by former president Barack Obama to foster communication between supervisors and staff.
Trump’s budget proposal, released last month, implicitly blames federal unions for “employer-employee relations activities [that] currently consume considerable management time and taxpayer resources, and may negatively impact efficiency, effectiveness, cost of operations, and employee accountability and performance.” The budget appendix added that union “contracts can have a significant impact on agency performance, workplace productivity, and employee satisfaction.”
Foreshadowing Education’s maneuver, the budget document says, “Agency managers will be encouraged to restore management prerogatives that have been ceded to Federal labor unions.”
Education officials are acting on that directive.
“The union spent more than a year dragging its feet on ground-rules negotiations without reaching any agreement and then failed to respond in a timely manner to negotiate over the contract proposed by the department,” said Elizabeth Hill, the department’s press secretary, adding that “this contract complies with all statutory requirements and maintains union members’ rights.”
Capitol Hill Republicans have long pushed legislation to restrict “official time,” which allows union officials, while being paid by the government, to engage with managers on a limited set of issues affecting employees generally. Those congressional efforts did not get far, but with Trump in the White House, official time could suffer a more severe beating.
Official time is grounded in the obligation of federal unions to represent everyone in a bargaining unit and not just dues-paying members. Those on official time cannot engage in strictly union activities, like recruiting members. Official time can be used for things such as improving productivity and safety and dealing with retaliation and discrimination.
“This isn’t negotiations,” said David A. Borer, AFGE general counsel. “This is a declaration of war on the employees and their union.”