The country’s largest federal employee union announced last week that it had reached an agreement with the Department of Education to resolve dozens of complaints of unfair labor practices, arbitration and other legal disputes arising from the department’s unilateral imposition of a draconian new contract in 2017 2018 revealed.
Under then-Secretary Betsy Devos, the Department of Education broke down negotiations on the ground rules for negotiating a new contract in 2018, telling the American Federation of Government Employees that it would draft its own contract. In March 2018, the department published the edict and implemented it over union objections.
The new policy eliminated contract provisions related to telecommuting, child and elder care, policies for promotions, increments, and bonuses and protections for employees with disabilities. It also essentially banned the union from access during official hours, evicted union leaders from office space provided by the department, and planned to reverse the process for deducting union dues from employees’ paychecks.
In accordance with the management decree, the department required employees to confirm their union membership annually, although it did not inform employees when this action was required. As a result, the department lifted dues withholding for 600 employees without notifying them of the change.
Cathie McQuiston, Deputy General Counsel of AFGE, the union’s national office, has essentially had to step in and carry out the duties traditionally performed by local union chairmen and shop stewards, both because of the lack of official time and the need to inform members about it to inform how they can ensure that their contributions continue to be collected annually.
“It was so much more extreme than that [President] Trump’s anti-union executive order was a clear union bust,” McQuiston said. “There was no official time, no negotiations about anything, we were kicked out of our offices, and then they took our financial resources by unilaterally dumping our members. As you know, contributions are our only source of income, so this was clear and calculated. There is no clearer example of union busting in the federal government.”
Eventually, over the next three years, the union filed 14 complaints of unfair labor practices, 10 complaints that went to arbitration, and other forms of litigation. The inauguration of President Biden in 2021 prompted nearly two years of negotiations, culminating in last week’s agreement setting out a new interim collective bargaining agreement — effectively a modified version of the department and union’s 2013 agreement — that the parties signed in May renegotiate in 2023 if they do so vote.
The settlement restores official time, returns the union to its previously occupied offices, restores dues deductions for the approximately 600 workers who were struck off the lists without their consent, and pays the union dues that the department should have withdrawn. The department will also provide some back pay and nearly $200,000 in attorneys’ fees to union officials who have had to take unpaid leave to perform representational duties traditionally covered by tenure.
McQuiston said there could have been more lawsuits against the department, but the department’s decree effectively intimidated employees into not pursuing them.
“It was just about making sure nobody was there to help you and then deducting you from your fee payments,” she said. “We could have had twice as many ULPs in that time frame but it was difficult to get people to come forward because they have to do affidavits and people were too scared. There was a huge fear factor and we had to work really hard to overcome it. Nobody wanted to speak to the union because they saw how the union representatives suffered.”
After Biden took office, McQuiston said the department largely abandoned its anti-labor tactics. But negotiations for a settlement agreement dragged on, at least in part, because the department’s labor relations officials involved in the talks were the same people who enforced the offending contract in the first place.
“I think undoing the broader Trump stuff when new people come in who don’t own or weren’t involved in the Trump-era behavior, so it’s usually not that big a struggle because it’s not their reputation.” She said. “But if you have someone who suggested that and executed that and they have to do a 180, they don’t want that. They’re management – they want to save face. . . It was really a challenge to get there. It took pressure from OPM, from the press and from the White House.”