Employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) voted 136-4 to unionize -- a move resulting from plans from the current Administration to relocate a majority of ERS employees to a location closer to its farmer stakeholders. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal union, already represents more than 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. Unionization at the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) is also in the works.
As part of a union, employees will become part of a collective bargaining unit and enter into contract discussions with USDA. It offers agency staff legal standing to negotiate with the department on the proposed move and other issues. A flyer announcing the vote distributed to USDA employees stated, “Work conditions at ERS are deteriorating and may continue to deteriorate in the future.”
“The Trump Administration has put ERS and NIFA researchers through the wringer staff and created an environment hostile to objective data collection through deep budget cuts, elimination of whole areas of work and now physical relocation of staff,” Union of Concerned Scientists economist Rebecca Boehm said. “If we want a clean air and water, safe food and sustainable farms, USDA researchers need resources and protections from political interference to do their job well. We hope a union will help give researchers these protections.”
Ephraim Leibtag, previously ERS assistant administrator, was named acting administrator starting Wednesday, according to an internal memo. Reports indicate that several ERS employees and scientists have left the agency in advance of a projected move.
Association of Public & Land-grant Universities (APLU) president Peter McPherson sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue May 3 in which he outlines concerns and priorities about the proposed relocation of NIFA outside the Washington, D.C., region and the impact it would have on science.
He stated that a primary reason APLU worked to help create NIFA was to strengthen science at USDA and increase interaction with other science agencies, including the National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Defense and Office of Science & Technology Policy at the White House to more effectively and comprehensively solve problems and to strengthen the science-based decisions at regulatory agencies. “This is a benefit to USDA, but also is important for the other science agencies,” McPherson said.
“We have been concerned about the very real potential for the significant loss of dedicated staff and institutional memory if a relocation were to move forward,” McPherson said. “Certainly, if NIFA were to be moved, choosing a location close to a research university with programs in agriculture and other pertinent areas is key for science, given the proximity to other scientists, but it is also important that a viable and strong science capacity presence remain here in Washington -- not just a small number of leaders. It is unclear that even these steps would allow NIFA to reach its potential, but we ask that effective science be a central factor in whatever decisions are reached.”
“With today’s overwhelming vote, ERS employees have sent a resounding message to the Trump Administration: the continued undermining of ERS must stop,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D., Mass.). “ERS is an invaluable resource on research and support for the food and agricultural communities. That is why Congress must stand in solidarity with ERS workers against the Administration’s attacks on science.”
On Wednesday, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee denied a 2018 proposal for a new lease for NIFA. The lease on the agency’s current location in southwest Washington, D.C., ends in January 2020. House Democrats have also asked Perdue for further details on the relocation before they’ll approve lease proposals for USDA.
At a recent House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, a bipartisan panel of former USDA officials testified against the proposed changes to the two agencies. The proposal is also opposed by the American Statistical Association, Agricultural & Applied Economics Assn., Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Union of Concerned Scientists, Food Research and Action Center, National WIC Assn., National Farmers Union, Consumer Federation of America, and many other prominent organizations within the agriculture and science communities.