EPA workers may once again get union protection under Biden

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The agency's bargaining power will be restored as anti-union, Trump-era regulations are replaced with more worker-friendly, pre-Trump contract terms.

The Environmental Protection Agency is working with its union to move forward with implementing President Joe Biden's January executive order that upended several Trump-era, anti-union policies. The end result will mean enacting better protections for federal employees and restoring union bargaining power compromised under Donald Trump.

The union to which EPA employees belong, the American Federation of Government Employees, is the nation's largest labor union for federal employees, representing some 700,000 in government-sector jobs.

In 2020, the EPA imposed upon its union a new contract that severely curtailed its rights, activities, and bargaining power. It was the direct consequence of three 2018 executive orders signed by Trump in 2018 to limit unions' power to protect federal employees.

These Trump-era orders meant EPA employees were prohibited from accessing the agency's supplies and office spaces for union use. The 2020 contract also placed rigid limitations on grievance proceedings — and the types of issues permitted to be the subject of such proceedings in the workplace — and gave a too-wide berth to agency management on how to conduct evaluations of employee performance.

Trump also implemented a "Schedule F" job classification system that allowed career federal employees to be reclassified in such a way that they would lose their civil service protections and be vulnerable to termination and replacement, a policy Biden's order rescinded.

But a memo between the EPA and the union Wednesday declared that these articles of the Trump-era 2020 union contract would be nullified and temporarily replaced with stipulations from an earlier 2007 union contract, one that was more protective of the rights of federal employees.

The 2020 contract terms arising placed extreme limits on union bargaining power by restricting the amount of time permitted for collective bargaining activity, and eased the path for agencies to fire federal employees by lessening due process protections for federal employees. The reinstated 2007 terms would instead extend union bargaining power by repealing these restrictions.

One of Biden's first moves in office in January was to sign an executive order rescinding Trump's earlier anti-union executive orders. Federal agencies in Biden's order were also instructed to "bargain over permissible, non-mandatory subjects of bargaining when contracts are up for negotiation." It also instructed the Office of Personnel Management to work on guidelines that would enable federal employees and contractors to be paid a minimum wage or $15 hourly.

In early March, the Office of Personnel Management issued guidelines instructing agencies on how to move forward to implement Biden's new executive order.

The White House wrote in a statement at the time the order was signed:

[Biden] is taking critical steps to protect and empower federal employees, who dedicate their careers to serving the American people. They keep us healthy, safe and informed, and their work transcends partisan politics ... They are talented, hard-working, and inspiring Americans, worthy of the utmost dignity and respect. But over the last four years, they’ve been undermined and demoralized. The president will sign an executive order taking steps to protect and empower federal employees who are so essential to this country.

Union leaders and Democratic lawmakers have long agreed that policies enacted by the Trump administration caused harm to federal employees.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said in January that Biden's executive order went "a long way in repairing the damage done to the federal workforce by the Trump administration over the last four years."

"Rep. Connolly and I have been working to protect our dedicated federal workers from these harmful actions," she noted. "We look forward to partnering with the new administration to ensure that collective bargaining, whistleblower protection and merit principles remain a foundation of the federal civil service."

And the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, Randy Erwin, openly thanked Biden for his executive order upended Trump's anti-union orders.

He said, "Intimidating federal employees and attempting to bust their unions was a cornerstone of President Trump’s plan to undermine the integrity of the civil service as we know it. For close to three years, we fought those awful Trump executive orders tooth-and-nail, and today they are finally gone."

Biden has long made protecting unions a cornerstone of his platform.

He's been applauded for rebuilding the National Labor Relations Board after its resources were depleted under Trump, openly supporting the pro-labor PRO Act passed by Congress, supporting striking Amazon workers in Alabama, and installing as labor secretary former labor union leader Marty Walsh. And he's undertaken numerous measures to help working-class Americans during his brief time in office.

When he unveiled his $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan, the American Jobs Plan, he said, "I'm a union guy. I support unions. Unions built the middle class. It's about time they start to get a piece of the action." He also promised the plan would create 18 million jobs, noting they would be "jobs that you can raise a family on, and ensure free and fair choice to organize and bargain collectively."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.