Critics slam EPA for rolling back union protections with latest contract

Critics slam EPA for rolling back union protections with latest contract
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Critics are pushing back after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced this week that it is rolling back the union protections offered to its employees.

In an email sent to agency staff earlier this week and obtained by The Hill late Tuesday, the agency announced it will implement a new contract that remains unsigned by the union itself.

“It’s styled as a collective bargaining agreement, but there’s no agreement. It’s imposed as an order, a dictate,” said Jeff Ruch, pacific director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), adding that the contract would dramatically reduce the assistance the union can offer the EPA employees.

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Under the contract, union employees would have to give up office space within the EPA offices and union leaders would not be able to use the intranet or agency billboards to communicate with members. It would also limit the amount of time union leaders could spend helping rank-and-file employees with labor disputes and other issues by 75 percent.

PEER leaders said numerous EPA employees had reached out to them with concerns following the move.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has already filed an unfair labor practice charge against the EPA to stop the seven-year contract from taking effect July 9. 

EPA and the AFGE, the largest union representing EPA employees, have struggled for years to negotiate a new contract for employees. 

EPA officials said they put the contract in place after the union walked away from negotiations that had been dragging on since 2010. The two sides have long disagreed over how much of the union contract is up for review. 

“As practical matter, if EPA decided to lay off one-third of its employees as the Trump administration has been proposing for last couple of years, the union ability to block that or even intercede is severely weakened,” Ruch said. 

EPA officials claim the new contract was designed for efficiency and effectiveness.

A career EPA employee said “there are certain limitations within the arbitration provision” that apply to employees who are being disciplined or fired.

But the agency argued that disputes were being handled in too many ways.

“If you already have other avenues of redress, then giving people multiple avenues for redress doesn’t make sense, especially when you have employees file in more than one place — it's ineffective at a certain point,” the agency said. 

PEER called the move “mean-spirited and petty.”

AFGE said the EPA’s actions are likely illegal.

AFGE Council 238 President Gary Morton said the current process is required by law.

“We want to follow process established by Congress,” he said. 

“Really this is bigger than just the contract itself. Overall this is part of the administration’s plans as they stated to gut the EPA and deny the employees the proper resources to fulfill the mission of the agency,” Morton said.   

As for office space, agency staff said eliminating the union work area is part of the EPA’s effort to reduce its overall office space. 

They also said blocking the union from using the agency intranet or billboards wouldn’t hinder communication as representatives were able to communicate through their own email during the shutdown.

“A lot of it just goes back to being an efficient and effective use of our equipment and the time,” another EPA career official said.