NIFA votes overwhelmingly to form union to oppose move
Employees of the Agriculture Department’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture voted overwhelmingly today to form a union through the American Federation of Government Employees, which has been helping the employees fight a Trump administration plan to move most of the employees of NIFA and the Economic Research Service outside the Washington metropolitan area.
There were 185 employees certified to vote, and the vote was 137 to 2, according to the count by the National Labor Relations Board. Separately, NIFA professional employees voted 75 to 5 to form one union of professional and support employees.
“I see a good and clear message and I hope (Agriculture Secretary) Sonny Perdue does too,” Peter Winch, an AFGE organizer, told reporters after the vote at NIFA headquarters in southwest Washington.
The employees “want to be represented on the job and they don’t want to be relocated,” Winch said. In addition to disrupting the employees’ lives, the move would damage U.S. agricultural research, he said.
Perdue said in a statement that he would work with the employees. Previously he has said that USDA wants to move the agency because the lease is up on the NIFA headquarters building, and that USDA can save taxpayers money by moving them.
Perdue has also said that a location outside the Washington area would make it easier to recruit workers, although the employees have disputed that view.
A USDA spokesman told reporters today that Perdue will hold an event related to the moves on Thursday, but will not announce the selection of the location to which the Trump administration wants the employees to move.
“The Trump administration has been working overtime to undermine the invaluable work ERS and NIFA employees perform on our nation’s behalf,” AFGE National President David Cox Sr. said in a statement.
“The proposal to relocate both agencies outside the nation’s capital would upend employees’ lives and could actually impede their work.
“By organizing at the worksite, employees at NIFA and ERS are using their collective voice to demand a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect the important work they do on the public’s behalf. The workers have spoken with a resounding voice; now it’s time for the administration to listen.”
After AFGE is certified in a few days as the employees’ official representative, the union will request a meeting with USDA officials about how to proceed, Winch said.
ERS employees voted 138 to 4 to affiliate with AFGE, and Winch said union officials have already had a “good meeting” with USDA officials, who said they will keep the union informed of any plans.
Winch said that NIFA has experienced substantial workplace problems in recent weeks. Many employees have left, the agency has run out of its budget for overtime, and employees who usually have other duties have had to process grant applications from land-grant universities and other applicants, he said.
Saying that these situations indicate an agency in crisis, Winch said AFGE will try to stop the moves or at least get employees more time to consider the decision about moving.
Politico reported last week that the agency is forcing NIFA employees to compete for the 20 jobs that will remain in Washington, a process that Winch said employees are calling the “Hunger Games.”
USDA has said that three metropolitan areas have made the final cut for consideration for locating ERS and NIFA: the Kansas City suburbs, the Research Triangle in North Carolina. and the Purdue University area of Indiana.
But the Associated Press reported, based on a story in Agri-Pulse, that Scott Hutchins, the deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics, last week told union representatives there are various pros and cons with each of the sites.
The AP reported, “Kansas City has a low cost of living and existing federal infrastructure, but that site is the farthest from land-grant universities and from D.C. (USDA officials also were told that schools in some Kansas City suburbs are better than in the D.C. region.)”
“Raleigh-Durham is the closest site to D.C., but its cost of living is rising. Indiana is a business-friendly state, but Indianapolis doesn’t have optimal facilities, and West Lafayette has no direct air service to D.C.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., has placed a hold on Hutchins’ nomination as the USDA chief scientist, Politico reported on May 23.
Van Hollen and other Democratic senators have introduced the Agriculture Research Integrity Act, which would bar USDA from reorganizing and moving ERS and NIFA out of the Washington area.
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, has introduced a similar bill in the House.
The fiscal year 2020 House Agriculture appropriations bill contains provisions stopping USDA from spending money on the moves. That bill is expected to come before the full House in a minibus next week.
But Senate appropriators have not yet considered a fiscal year 2020 Agriculture appropriations bill, and Republicans, who are in control in the Senate, appear less likely to oppose the moves.