EPA employees fight for a contract that will protect them against future administrations
I am a proud employee of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where I have dedicated my career to upholding the agency’s mission to protect human health and the environment. I have worked at the EPA for 28 years, and the past few years have been nothing short of a rollercoaster.
The Trump years were a total nightmare. EPA employees routinely faced demeaning and hostile attacks, all while our work was being systematically undermined. The administration rolled back clean water protections, dismantled environmental protections, removed the climate science page from the EPA website, replaced climate policies with weaker rules, weakened standards for auto emissions, cut our budget by 31 percent in his very first year in office and so much more.
We watched in horror as the Trump administration expressed an outright hostility towards science and an appeasement of industry that jeopardized the wellbeing of our planet. During the Trump administration, our union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Council 238 was issued a unilateral “contract” from which we were able to negotiate some relief, albeit under duress.
In contrast, President Biden’s short time in office has given EPA workers a renewed sense of hope. Fighting climate change and pursuing environmental justice are EPA priorities, and science is back. The administration has shown a willingness to listen to the experiences of EPA workers during the Trump years and has made it known that our expertise matters.
Make no mistake about it: the change in tone and attitude towards EPA workers and our work is incredibly meaningful. There are many reasons for EPA workers to be optimistic about the remainder of President Biden’s term in office. However, if the Trump years taught us anything, it’s that worker power must be front and center at the agency in order to effectively push back against a future administration that may be both anti-science and anti-worker.
For EPA workers, that begins with a new contract.
So far, we are off to a good start. In April, AFGE Council 238, signed an interim agreement with the EPA to remove anti-worker provisions from the contract negotiated under duress during the Trump administration. That interim agreement goes into effect today, July 1, 2021.
From here, negotiations for a new contract will begin within 90 days. Lessons learned from the prior administration require that this contract transcend the usual provisions to protect employees’ workplace rights, but it must also protect employees to ensure the future of the EPA. This contract must shield our workforce from potential destructive political maneuvers by future administrations. Our contract must support a workplace where the best and brightest are incentivized to make their careers at EPA, where scientific integrity, the rule of law, and a hate-free workplace are guaranteed. Our contract must balance our work for the American people with our commitments to family and community.
We have already seen EPA workers leave due to unnecessary limits on work schedule flexibility and telework. If we are not able to change that, we will further lose seasoned staff and miss out on potential incoming talent to the private sector where they can find more flexibility and upward mobility. After the last 16 months, my colleagues and I have seen that we can continue our full commitment to our jobs and the mission of the EPA, but there is more to life than work. Working from home has allowed me to do my job and spend much more quality time with my family, all while reducing carbon emissions by not commuting.
Our next contract must protect the work of the EPA, EPA workers themselves, and our core mission of protecting human health and the environment. We need management accountability. We need to end discrimination and harassment at the EPA. We need the agency to see us as full human beings, with families, children, older parents, our own health issues, and so many more responsibilities beyond our work life. If EPA workers are to thrive and continue to do their jobs, our new contract must hold managers accountable for how employees are treated. It is essential that we strengthen workers’ voices on the job so that we can call out discrimination, harassment, and oppression.
This contract is about protecting EPA workers and the vital work they do both today and for all of our futures.
Marie Owens-Powell is President of AFGE Local 3631.