The union representing Department of Education bureaucrats is crying foul after the agency constrained union privileges following months of delays in negotiation.
On Monday the agency implemented a new collective bargaining agreement with its employees, who are represented by the American Federation of Government Employees. The terms of the deal could strike a blow against the labor organization. Workers will no longer be automatically enrolled in the union and instead will have to opt into representation. Under the previous contract, workers had only one 48-hour window to opt out of paying union dues or fees. It will also eliminate perks previously given to union officers, including taxpayer-supported office space and supplies.
One department official said the contract implemented under Secretary Betsy DeVos will serve "as the gold standard for other agencies in their negotiations" with labor organizations.
AFGE Council 252 represents 2,500 Education Department employees. The union has accused the administration of attempting to "kill the union and deny workers their legal right to representation" with the new contract. The new contract also removed official time, in which taxpayer dollars cover the pay of officers who conduct union business—such as grievance representation—on government time. The union previously enjoyed 5,000 hours of covered time, but the new contract says such time will now be unpaid.
"Removing access to this time is like asking the fire department to operate without firetrucks or a firehose," the union said in a statement. "This edict is counterproductive and wrong. It's bad for public employees, and it's bad for public education."
The department said the union has only itself to blame for the agency's implementation of the contract. Contract negotiations began in October 2016 under the Obama administration, but the union balked at coming to an agreement on the ground rules of negotiating a new contract. It sent a final offer on ground rules to the union in December 2017 before sending an initial proposal on the substance of the collective bargaining agreement in February.
"This contract complies with all statutory requirements and maintains union members' rights under the Civil Service Protections Act and the Federal Labor Relations Act," agency spokesman Liz Hill said in an email. "The union spent more than a year 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."
When asked about the negotiating process, a union spokesman pointed to a March 14 statement from President Claudette Young outlining her opposition to the terms of the contract, as well as the union's interest in returning to the bargaining table.
"AFGE did not agree to these unilateral terms," Young said. "AFGE is, and has been, eager to return to the table to negotiate a fair and just contract, which all employees deserve."
A senior department official familiar with the negotiations said the union failed to respond to repeated bargaining requests and failed to abide by deadlines. The union filed an unfair labor practice complaint, first obtained by Federal News Radio, to the Federal Labor Relations Authority hoping to block the new contract.
"After realizing that the Department was serious about proceeding with implementation of the new CBA, the Union suddenly swung into action over the last week after the timeframe had already expired, attempting an untimely last-ditch effort to prevent implementation," the senior official said. "None of these actions alter the Union's original failure to engage in good faith bargaining on ground rules or the Union's failure to respond within the timeframe."
The agency began implementing the terms of the new contract on March 12 and will remain in effect until 2025 if it is allowed to go through.