Facing relocation, USDA’s research arm will vote to unionize

The election comes as workers grapple with a contentious move out of the Beltway.

Employees at the Economic Research Service (ERS), an independent agency at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), will vote to form a union on May 9. The election is scheduled just days before the USDA announces where in the United States it intends to move them, Politico reports, as part of a contentious relocation plan.

The ERS employees will likely vote to be represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which already represents over 100,000 USDA workers nationwide (primarily inspectors). AFGE would negotiate on behalf of 214 economists, analysts, and other ERS employees as the department moves forward on relocating most of them to one of 68 possible locations—primarily rural and college communities.

The AFGE’s plan is two-pronged. In addition to representing workers and negotiating relocation terms, the union is also lobbying senators—including Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan—to stop the move altogether. (Democratic Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine has introduced a bill in the House to keep ERS right where it is.)

The AFGE represents nearly 700,000 federal employees, 320,000 of whom are dues-paying members, according to organizer Peter Winch. It represents workers at multiple federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, State, Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Overall, nearly 32 percent of federal employees are already represented by unions, a higher rate than many other industries.

AFGE has bargained on behalf of workers during relocations of other government offices, such as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Typically, though, the relocations are inside the Beltway, according to Winch.

Additionally, 235 employees at the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which is also facing a relocation, will vote to unionize with AFGE later in May. NIFA allocates funding to land grant universities.

Federal jobs are a jewel for these communities. Six, seven hundred jobs, steady, with salaries—that’s a real benefit.

Earlier this month, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue told a Senate appropriations panel that a final ERS site will be selected by mid-May, and that he would reveal a cost-benefit analysis for the proposed move. As we’ve reported, some fear the move is political, because ERS research often contradicts policy goals of the Trump administration.

Previously, the agriculture secretary has said that ERS is being relocated to spur economic development outside D.C., among other reasons. “It’s the same thing Amazon is doing with their relocation,” Perdue told reporters in October, outside an unrelated USDA hearing. “Federal jobs are a jewel for these communities. Six, seven hundred jobs, steady, with salaries—that’s a real benefit.”

An ERS economist contacted by the New Food Economy, who was granted anonymity, says he intends to vote for the union not only to stop the move, but also to restore teleworking; Secretary Perdue took this option away from some employees. AFGE has lobbied other agencies, including the Education Department, to allow workers to keep it.

“The way things are going, you’re doing anything you can stop USDA from destroying the agency,” the economist says.

The ERS union election is scheduled for Thursday, May 9, at its current Washington, D.C., office. The NIFA election is not yet scheduled, but is expected to occur later in the month.

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.

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