After months of attempted negotiations, the Department of Education has retracted privileges its union employees once enjoyed, saying the union “acted in bad faith” by refusing to broker an agreement with the agency.
Last week, the department implemented a new collective bargaining agreement between itself and its union—the American Federation of Government Employees—regarding salaries, working conditions, and benefits for union workers. Compared with past agreements, the new one restricts some of the union’s benefits.
The new contract requires the AFGE to pay “fair-market rent” for office space (previously given to the union free of charge); restricts the amount of “official time”—or paid time spent on union-related activities—which union employees can log; and requires the union to allow employees to opt-in for representation each year, rather than automatically renewing memberships. (It’s worth noting that the benefits being retracted have only to do with the union itself and do not impinge on individual workers.)
The AFGE called foul play, filing a complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority the next day claiming that the agreement wasn’t actually an “agreement”: “AFGE did not agree to these unilateral terms,” Claudette Young, AFGE Council 252 president, said in a statement. “The agency has imposed an illegal document that we had absolutely no bargaining over. Secretary Betsy DeVos and her management team are attempting to strip employees of their collective bargaining rights and kill the union.”
The department’s press secretary Liz Hill disagrees.
“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,” she said.
The AFGE claims they couldn’t strike a deal with the Education Department because of an “anti-Union, hostile environment” at the bargaining table. But a senior department official familiar with the negotiations told THE WEEKLY STANDARD that union representatives didn’t even show up to the table to begin with.
The department sent the union a proposed agreement on February 8, along with a timeframe for the union to respond with a counter offer, but the union never responded.
“We are shocked they didn’t get back to us,” the official said. “We thought at the very least they would get back to us and say ‘We don’t agree with what you’re doing,’ or “We don’t like your timeframe. We need more time.’ But they didn’t do any of those things.”
The AFGE did not respond to requests for comment.
The department official told TWS that the new contract “eliminates unnecessary, non-statutory hoops” and gives DeVos much-needed flexibility.
“This new agreement doesn’t have a bunch of additional requirements, so in that sense, it’s deregulatory. They weren’t regulations, but they were hurdles the Department had to jump through to do things the Department needed to do,” the official said.
Under the new agreement, union workers are no longer “locked in,” says the official. The old contract left union members with a 48-hour period each year to opt-out of paying union dues and fees.
Restricting the amount of official time union employees can log is also “beneficial to the taxpayers,” says the official. The agreement still covers time spent in negotiation and time spent in front of the FLRA, both of which are required by federal statute. The official told TWS this cutback is “in the public interest.”
“Union folks with union positions, who are also employees of the department, had full-time jobs here and yet weren’t fulfilling their jobs’ responsibilities and duties,” the department official said. “It doesn’t make sense for a taxpayer to pay employees for work not being done.”
The FLRA is expected to launch an investigation in response to the union’s complaint, but Hill said the contract is lawful and that it “complies with all statutory requirements and maintains union members’ rights.”
“In a way I feel bad for the union members because the union officials didn’t preserve their benefits. They didn’t act when they needed to act. Instead they just dragged their feet, they didn’t get back to us, and they didn’t take many of the opportunities our career staff gave them,” the department official said. “I think it was a strategic decision to make the process last as long as it could. Maybe they were hoping the political climate would change or something. But it really backfired on them and now they have no one to blame but themselves.”