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Workers accuse Trump administration, DeVos of union-busting

The union representing rank-and-file employees at the Education Department has accused Secretary Betsy DeVos of undermining union activities.
The union representing rank-and-file employees at the Education Department has accused Secretary Betsy DeVos of undermining union activities. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Rank-and-file Education Department employees have gone to battle with Secretary Betsy DeVos, accusing department management of gutting a long-standing labor agreement and enforcing a new pact that has been roundly rejected by their union.

Officials with the American Federation of Government Employees Council 252 said the department is flouting labor law and protocols, walking away from negotiations on a new contract last year before ground rules could even be set.

The administration then wrote in provisions to the old contract that impede the work of union officials within government offices and make it difficult for people to sign up for the union.

Earlier this month, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, saying the Education Department failed to negotiate in good faith.

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The Trump administration has sought to slash costs at the department, last year offering buyouts to hundreds of employees. The administration sought to cut $9.8 billion from the agency in its budget proposal for the current fiscal year, but the cuts were overwhelmingly rejected by Congress.

Elizabeth Hill, spokeswoman for DeVos, blamed the impasse on the union.

“The union spent more than a year dragging its feet on ground rules [for] negotiations without reaching any agreement, and then failed to respond in [a] timely manner to negotiate over the contract proposed by the department,” Hill wrote in an email Wednesday. “This contract complies with all statutory requirements and maintains union members’ rights under the Civil Service Protections Act and the Federal Labor Relations Act.”

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This is not the first time DeVos has found herself at odds with a public sector union. She has called teacher unions “defenders of the status quo” and apologists for a public education system she views as broken and unimaginative. Teacher unions have loudly protested her push for expanding school choice and private school vouchers, which allow public funds to flow to private and charter schools.

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About 100 people — including Education Department employees and supporters from other employee unions — gathered Wednesday outside the department’s headquarters southwest of the Capitol. A massive inflatable rat with teeth gnashing loomed over the rally.

“We’re in the fight of our lives,” said Council 252 President Claudette Young, who works for Financial Student Aid in Chicago. “The department has violated our contract and the law and repudiated our contract and is trying to replace it with stripped-down, unilaterally implemented management rules that we call the management edict. . . . It’s not anything that we agreed to.”

“No bargaining, no justice!” the crowd chanted.

The new agreement, which union officials say was unilaterally drawn up by the department, strips out many worker protections, including those regarding discrimination, performance appraisals and arrangements for employees to work out of the office.

It also restricts union activities in department offices, forcing representatives to go on unpaid leave if they need to conduct union activities. Management no longer recognizes union stewards and is forcing all activities to go through Young. The union typically has had an office and equipment in Education Department buildings, but the agency is kicking it out and confiscating equipment union officials had used.

The agreement also is stripped of provisions on how to accommodate workers who have a disability, a move that infuriated Athena Quezada, who works for the Office for Civil Rights in Denver and is a chief steward. Quezada, an equal opportunity specialist, is charged with ensuring schools comply with civil rights laws.

“We’re directed to enforce those laws to protect the nation. But we don’t offer them to our own employees in the collective bargaining agreement for our employees with disabilities,” Quezada said. “That’s particularly upsetting for me.”

Other public sector unions are watching the situation closely because it signals what could be coming for other federal employees, union officials said.

“Make no mistake,” said Sharon Harris, who retired from the Education Department but still works with the federal employees union. “This is not an attempt to slow us down. This is an attempt to kill us.”