Ag Policy Blog

ERS Staff Vote to Form Union

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent

Employees of the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service voted today to affiliate with the American Federation of Government Employees in an attempt to stop or affect the Trump administration’s plans to move most of the agency’s workers outside the Washington metropolitan area.

The vote was 138 to 4, with 204 ERS employees eligible to vote.

In a separate ballot, the employees voted to make the professional employees and support staff part of one bargaining group. That vote was 107 to 9.

Employees at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which also is scheduled to relocate, are scheduled to vote on whether to affiliate with AFGE on June 11, according to Peter Winch, an AFGE union organizer who was on site at the ERS offices in southwest Washington where the vote was held.

AFGE says it represents about 700,000 federal and District of Columbia employees nationwide and overseas.

Winch said the union had been approached by ERS employees through the American Statistical Association, and that the Union of Concerned Scientists was also involved in the unionization effort.

Winch told reporters that AFGE has focused for months on convincing congressional appropriators to stop the moves. Once the union is certified as the representative of ERS, he said, probably in five days, it will ask for a meeting with USDA management.

AFGE will also question whether USDA is spending appropriated money properly. All leases for office space over $3 million are supposed to be supervised by the General Services Administration, Winch said.

The current ERS and NIFA leases are each $5 million, but USDA has maintained that it can move money around if it is under $3 million.

Winch said USDA attempted to keep ERS public affairs staff members from voting, but that those employees insisted on voting. He also said he administration attempted to stop information technology workers from voting.

Supervisors and managers were not allowed to vote, he added.

Winch said the union wants to preserve the integrity of the agency and that the Trump administration is “decimating and demoralizing a very competent workforce.”

He noted that in addition to proposing moving most of the ERS employees, the Trump administration has proposed halving the agency’s budget.

Winch said there is a substantial union presence at USDA, and that AFGE represents food safety inspectors and employees at the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md.

ERS has never been unionized. “Perhaps that’s why they were vulnerable to this attack,” Winch said.

USDA has announced that Indiana near Purdue University, Kansas City, and the Research Triangle area of North Carolina are on the short list of new locations, and that St. Louis and Madison, Wis., are lower ranked but still in the running.

Some employees have said they expect ERS to be relocated to Indiana, while others believe Kansas City is more likely.

In all the proposed locations, salaries would be 12% to 13% lower than in Washington, where employees are paid more due to the higher cost of living, an ERS researcher told reporters. If employees move, the value of their accumulated leave would be reduced to the new pay level if they cash out the leave upon retirement.

Employees have been told that by the end of May they will get a notice of the new location and will have 30 days to decide whether to move, the researcher said. If they decide to relocate, they will have 120 days including the 30 days to report to the new duty station, the researcher added.

Employees who decide to retire early will get a $25,000 payment, the researcher said.

Of the exodus from the agency, the researcher said that the employees who have the strongest publishing record have already left, going to agencies such as the Congressional Budget Office, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent U.S. foreign aid agency formed by Congress.

The researcher also said that the administration is leaving commodity analysts and others working directly with agriculture in Washington, and moving researchers in other areas away from the capital.

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jhagstrom@njdc.com

Follow him on Twitter @hagstromreport

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