The American Federation of Government Employees took a significant step towards unionizing Defense Department employees in Europe. The union plans to have at least one new organizing body in place by the end of 2023 or early next year. Of about 30,000 Defense Department employees in Europe, AFGE is focusing its initial efforts in Germany around Defense Health Agency (DHA) employees and workers at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), the on-base super stores where service members and DoD employees shop for food, clothes and consumer goods.
AFGE filed a preliminary letter with the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FRLA) to trigger an investigation into whether employees at Ramstein AAFES want a union, and if the proposed bargaining unit is correctly described.
“We filed our first petition. We hope to file many, many more. We have had some contact with AAFES management here and with AAFES Europe and with the FRLA about Ramstein [Air Base] as well. We hope to have those two elections soon,” Peter Winch, special assistant to the national vice president at AFGE District 14 told Federal News Network.
AFGE set up a new at-large local known as Local 14 under their District 14. Although District 14 covers federal employees in Maryland, Virginia and D.C., it can extend its membership to European federal employees and already has a few smaller locals in Europe.
The idea would be to set up more locals in Europe based on profession and locality. Membership in the new at-large local is open to federal employees throughout Europe at any agency who are not already represented by an AFGE local. Employees can be under the general schedule, wage grade or non-appropriated fund pay systems. AFGE hopes it will eventually represent about 10,000 employees under Local 14.
So far AFGE has about 100 dues-paying at-large members within the new local. At this point, the union can offer those members representation in labor disputes, but collective bargaining doesn’t come into play until FLRA holds elections to recognize the union. Before that can happen, AFGE will need 30% of the workforce to express interest in holding the elections. AFGE has a labor attorney in Europe who represents union members, including those without collective bargaining units, in disputes.
“But in both Ramstein and [Army Garrison Stuttgart] we have active organizing committees that have gotten 30% or more — 30% is the legal minimum. We try to get more than that before we ask for an election,” Winch said.
Unionizing the Defense Health Agency
Winch said the majority of federal employees in Europe are in the area of Ramstein and Stuttgart in Germany and the union’s primary focus will be on employees of the DHA. Since the Pentagon established DHA in 2013, it has gradually taken over management of the military’s treatment facilities. With that change has come a surge in employment for DoD civilian medical and support staff at the facilities.
“The military treatment facilities or military hospitals were Army originally. They’ve been transferred to the Defense Health Agency, really, in the last couple of years. At the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center [near Ramstein] we have considerable interest from the nurses. They are working on a 30% or more showing of interest from the hundreds of people who work at Landstuhl,” Winch said.
The DHA did not respond to a request for comment.
Winch said much of the interest in union representation comes from employees who transferred overseas and found a different standard of checks and balances in how management works. Employees have reported being threatened with getting sent home early if they don’t meet a manager’s demands, and at times they find the job they were assigned is not what they agreed to when they made the move to Europe.
“Dozens of employees have reached out to District 14 over the past few months, complaining of mistreatment in job placements and workplace discrimination, among other abuses,” according to an AFGE statement about the organizing effort.