Employees at Army’s Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois say they’re working without a mutually agreed upon collective bargaining agreement after Army representatives put a contract in place that the union calls illegal. As the two sides await a decision from the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA), over 400 workers are on the job with no contract.
The dispute hinges on changes to collective bargaining agreements made during the administration of President Donald Trump and then changed again under President Joe Biden’s administration. Union leaders say the contract the Army put in place is not valid based on the Biden executive order.
Last week, a series of emails highlighted the dispute. Rock Island Arsenal’s Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center (JMTC) management sent a letter to union employees saying that both sides had agreed to the new contract. The next day, the union representing the workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, sent its own email saying there was not an agreement on the new contract.
“Last Monday [April 24], they sent out an email to the workforce, stating that there was an agreement between them and the local about the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Our local responded back on Tuesday afternoon, said this is incorrect, that we’ve wanted the workforce to know that what they’re telling us is a lie. We haven’t agreed to this,” Tim Russell, a steward with AFGE Local 2119 said in an interview with Federal News Network. “Then Friday afternoon before we left, we got an email from the agency stating that they were filing paperwork against us because we sent that email.”
The skilled workers at JMTC produce parts for Howitzer cannons, mobile repair modules and portable kitchens for military operations.
The latest round in the conflict began in April. Negotiations broke down and the JMTC sent out a statement saying the new contract would go into effect on April 23. The union said they never agreed to the contract, and imposing it unilaterally is prohibited by an executive order President Biden signed in January of 2021. The union has filed multiple unfair labor practice violations relating to the contract.
“I would be looking for in reviewing this case, if the agency did in fact implement citing the old executive orders as authority. And the Biden executive order was directly contrary to that, I know how I would rule on it. You don’t act in accordance with an executive order that’s expired or has been displaced,” said James Abbott, an attorney who previously served on the FLRA board.
In an email to Federal News Network, the Army said “The issues raised by the AFGE Local 2119 are currently under review by the Federal Labor Relations Authority. RIA-JMTC supports this process in good faith and respectfully defers comment until the FLRA has had an opportunity to provide a ruling.”
Abbott said the dispute comes down to who thinks the contract is valid.
“That is a dispute that frequently comes up in an unfair labor practice from one party or the other, generally the union alleging that the agency is unilaterally implementing a contract. It doesn’t happen a lot. But it has happened,” Abbott said. “It typically comes up under the terms of the contract itself, where the agency or union argue that they’re acting under the terms of the contract, and therefore, it’s not unilateral, it was a negotiated matter, and is covered by the bargaining agreement.”
The disagreement began in 2019 when the union negotiated a contract with JMTC and sent it to the Defense Civilian Personnel Advisory Service (DCPAS) for review. DCPAS is a government human resources agency in charge of reviewing bargaining agreements for compliance. It sent the contract back and said parts of it violated a Trump administration executive order regarding management rights in the bargaining process.
The union appealed to FLRA and by time the agency responded, it was late in 2020. FLRA then delayed making a decision, because the Biden Administration was about to take over the White House. After taking office, Biden immediately signed his own executive order changing some of the management prerogatives that the Trump order had instituted. Since then, JMTC and the union have been unable to reach an agreement despite attempts at mediation.
“We’re still operating with the contract that was negotiated back in 2013. And in our eyes, we are still operating under that, because we haven’t signed this new one that they implemented last month. We did go back to a mediation session. And of course, we didn’t agree,” Russell said.