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USDA division votes to unionize as employees protest planned relocation

“We will work with this group of employees just as we work with all USDA employees,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement Tuesday. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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For the second time this year, workers at a science division of the Agriculture Department voted overwhelmingly to unionize in apparent revolt against the administration’s plan to relocate them from Washington, D.C., to a yet-to-be-announced location.

On Tuesday, employees at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which distributes $400 million in competitive grants to researchers around the country each year, voted 137 to 2 to be represented by the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employees union. In May, the Economic Research Service, a federal statistical agency also included in the relocation, voted 138 to 4 to unionize with AFGE.

“We will work with this group of employees just as we work with all USDA employees,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement distributed to reporters before the votes were counted. In August, Perdue announced the relocation as a cost-saving measure that would move scientists closer to those they serve, a claim critics dispute.

In early May, USDA announced that Kansas City, the Research Triangle in North Carolina and the state of Indiana had been selected as the leading candidates for relocation sites. The department has not said when it would make a final decision. “I truly believe that the relocation of ERS and NIFA will help to fulfill USDA’s commitment to be the most effective, most efficient and most customer-focused agency in the federal government,” Perdue said in the statement.

But former USDA officials and leaders in the agricultural community argue the relocation will paralyze the agencies, and have also warned that this proposal is an attempt to weaken the influence of scientists under the Trump administration.

Members of Congress were divided largely along partisan lines. At an Agriculture Committee hearing last week, Rep. Neal Dunn (R-Fla.) said the secretary “has broad support to move forward with this decision.” But Democrats in both chambers have introduced legislation to block the move, and they dispute whether the secretary has the authority to relocate the offices without congressional approval.

Peter Winch, a union organizer for AFGE, said that the newly formed union would ask the department to allow employees to visit the proposed relocation site and to give them more than 30 days to respond to reassignment letters.

The unionization vote comes as the Trump administration has taken a confrontational approach toward federal employees and their unions with executive orders, new policies creating a faster path to firing and tough stances at the bargaining table.

At a rally on Tuesday morning, about a dozen NIFA and ERS employees waved American flags and handed out pro-union stickers. Unionization would “delay changes to working conditions” and offer “protection from political interference,” according to the fliers they distributed. Those who spoke to The Washington Post did so on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared professional repercussions. Many employees are applying for new jobs in the District, and few said that they would consider relocating.

A senior NIFA employee said that the push to unionize “would never have happened without the secretary of agriculture.” Another lamented the absence of a USDA chief scientist, who in previous administrations had been the voice of scientists in the department.

A third employee said the workload — the number of grant awards to be processed — has quadrupled due to high attrition and the lasting effects of the federal government shutdown this winter. NIFA’s $1.7 billion budget supports cutting-edge research as well as rural communities and programs like 4-H. “The mission still has to be done,” the person said, but the “morale is not great.”

Inside the NIFA office building, workers waited for up to an hour to vote. Three-quarters of NIFA employees eligible to cast a ballot did so. About 30 people watched as an official from the Federal Labor Relations Authority counted the votes. NIFA employees cheered when the final tally was announced.

“Waiting for the department to give us a voice was not going to happen,” the senior NIFA employee said. The relocation process, which has “generated considerable frustration,” the person said, “provided a lot of motivation for employees to form a union in order to have a voice.”

The administration has argued that its pro-management policies are an effort to make government and its employees more efficient and able to serve the public. But the actions have created anxiety in federal offices and resulted in court challenges.

Last year, a federal judge shot down the bulk of three White House executive orders that were designed to bring a pro-management atmosphere to federal offices.

Among the toughest provisions was a drastic cut to what is known as official time, legally mandated spans that union officials spend on the clock representing their members in grievances and other disputes. The executive orders also sought to make it easier for managers to fire poor performers.

The judge’s ruling is on appeal, and a decision is expected in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the administration has worked around the constraints of the court ruling at the bargaining table.

This article has been updated.

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