On Wednesday afternoon U.S. Department of Education employees held a rally to protest the imposition on the Department’s employees of what Betsy DeVos has called a contract agreement. The so-called contract was, however, neither agreed to nor signed by any representative of the American Federation of Government Employees.
The Washington Post‘s Joe Davidson explains: “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.”
Rachel Cohen first broke the story on March 15, in The Intercept: “The union representing nearly 4,000 federal employees working for the U.S. Department of Education filed a complaint this week accusing the agency, run by Betsy DeVos, of union busting…. (M)anagement officials at the Education Department informed their workers’ union, the American Federation of Government Employees Council 252, that they would no longer be bargaining with them. Instead, management issued a 40-page document the department is calling a ‘collective bargaining agreement.’… Education Department staffers have been represented by the AFGE since 1982… In an interview with The Intercept, AFGE Assistant General Counsel Ward Morrow said it’s ‘extremely unusual’ to have to file a complaint over something like this. ‘You can’t even call it a collective bargaining agreement because it wasn’t collective, it wasn’t bargained, and there was no agreement,’ he said.”
In his Washington Post PowerPost commentary, Davidson analyzes the changes taking place: “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.'”
Davidson explains further: “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… 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.”
Cohen reports that office space and equipment in the Education Department building will no longer be provided to the union: “The new edict seeks to curtail union activity by imposing significant new rules and restrictions on the AFGE… Federal laptops, printers, and cellphones assigned to union members must be returned by March 26. Union office space must be vacated by April 11, unless the AFGE wants to start paying fair-market rent for its use. Staffers who serve as union officers are now also being told that they will no longer receive paid leave for time spent performing union representational duties.”
Cohen reports that Education Department spokesperson, Liz Hill blames the union for “dragging its feet on ground rules negotiations without reaching any agreement, and then failed to respond in timely manner to negotiate over the contract proposed by the Department.”
Cohan reports the union’s response from AFGE Council 252 President, Claudette Young: “We did not have any sticking points, we were not at an impasse… We were negotiating ground rules and making progress at every negotiating session. We don’t believe that we had anything we would not have been able to reach an agreement over if bargaining were to continue.”
Education Week‘s Alyson Klein provides background: “The contract dispute is happening as DeVos and her team are working on a major reorganization of the department. The plan calls for merging the Office of Innovation and Improvement, which deals with charter and private schools, with the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, the main K-12 office, among other changes. The plan has meant reassignments for senior career managers and other employees. For instance, the department’s chief privacy officer, Kathleen Styles, was reassigned and replaced by her deputy, Angela Arrington.” DeVos had also planned to break up the Department’s budget office, but Congress blocked that change with a provision added to the omnibus 2018 spending bill passed last week and signed by President Trump.
Klein puts the Department’s internal union dispute in a broader context: “The confrontation at the education department coincides with a big moment for education unions. Teachers in West Virginia stopped work for nine school days until the state legislature agreed to a 5 percent pay raise. Educators in Oklahoma are preparing a walkout in early April, and unions in other states are contemplating a similar move. As secretary, DeVos hasn’t taken sides in the state-level teacher contract disputes… She… said she supported both higher teacher salaries and responsible state budgeting. But back in Michigan, DeVos and her family rarely saw eye-to-eye with unions, including the Michigan Education Association…. (T)he DeVos family was a force behind a successful campaign in Michigan to turn the state into a ‘right-to-work state.’ The Michigan Freedom Fund, an organization headed up by Greg McNeilly, a long-time associate of the Devoses, helped lead the charge in getting the legislation passed.”