After months spent at the bargaining table, the Education Department has ended its negotiations with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and said it will instead implement its own terms.
Those terms do not include the bevy of previously agreed to policies on the agency’s telework, training and disability exceptions, among others. They do, however, include significantly stricter provisions on union employees’ use of official time, a new grievance process and restrictions on the union’s use of the department’s office space and supplies.
AFGE Council 252, which represents 2,500 Education employees, said it did not agree to these new terms.
“AFGE is, and has been, eager to return to the table to negotiate a fair and just contract, which all employees deserve,” Council 252 President Claudette Young said in a statement Wednesday.
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The union has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, and FLRA has accepted the complaint, an AFGE spokesperson told Federal News Radio.
AFGE’s number one priority is to return to bargaining table with the Education Department, the spokesperson said. The union sees a collective bargaining agreement as a “road map” for how employees and management are supposed to work together.
Education, however, sees the situation differently.
“The union spent more than a year dragging its feet on ground rules negotiations without reaching any agreement and then failed to respond in timely manner to negotiate over the contract proposed by the department,” Education Spokeswoman Liz Hill said in a statement to Federal News Radio. “This contract complies with all statutory requirements and maintains union members’ rights under the Civil Service Protections Act and the Federal Labor Relations Act.”
Even on first glance, there are differences between the previous collective bargaining agreement and Education’s new document, which AFGE is calling a “management edict.” The new document is 40 pages long. The previous agreement, dated Dec. 17, 2013, is 186 pages.
The new “agreement,” which began March 12, will remain in effect for the next seven years. The previous agreement documented a three-year duration, though it clearly extended past December 2016.
Perhaps most notably, the previous agreement included articles on a wider variety of topics, including telework, child and elder care, employees with disabilities and employee development and training opportunities.
The department’s new document does not mention employee training or telework, and it’s unclear if the department will continue those policies going forward.
Education did not respond to queries about the future of the telework or employee training policies. AFGE said it doesn’t know how the department will handle these previous policies, either.
Beyond the uncertainty with Education’s work-life policies, the new document also includes new limitations on official time.
The previous agreement described 11 activities where union representatives could use official time to work with Education’s bargaining employees, including meetings with employees to discuss grievances, preparing for discussions and official negotiations with department management and participating in labor-management partnership activities, among others.
But Education’s new document drastically cuts back on the number and kinds of activities that it would cover using official time. Instead, union officers and representatives will now receive “reasonable amounts of time of official time” for two main activities:
The 2013 agreement released the council president, national shop steward and Local 2607 president from duty for 100 percent official time. Now, the Council 252 president can use 50 percent leave without pay for union activities. The 2018 document designates a bank of 4,927 hours of leave-without-pay per fiscal year for AFGE Council 252 to represent union employees.
The Education Department will distribute this “leave-without-pay” bank evenly among the council and 10 local union representatives. The previous agreement let up to 75 stewards, each of AFGE’s 10 Education locals and Council 252 use “reasonable amounts” of official time.
Education’s 2018 document also describes a new disciplinary process if union officers fail to record official time promptly and accurately. This process was absent from the previous agreement.
Education notified AFGE of its decision to begin these new terms last Friday. They went into effect Monday. Since then, union representatives’ key cards to access the department’s buildings have been turned off. Education has categorized at least two AFGE local presidents as “security threats,” the AFGE spokesperson said.
Under the new management directive, Education will no longer provide office space for union officials in the same way as it had under previous agreements.
The 2013 agreement describes designated private office space for Council 252 and each of its 10 locals. Now, Education will provide only the union council with dedicated space, recognizing the “need to utilize space in a manner consistent with space saving initiatives aligned with the department and other federal initiatives to reduce office footprints and fiscal impacts.”
The council’s president may also use one additional office at the department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., the new document reads.
In the past, Education had agreed to provide a few computers, printer and mobile devices for the union council president and other officials. That’s changed with the department’s new document, and AFGE representatives are currently turning in their phones and other equipment, the union spokesperson said.
Moving forward, the union will be responsible for supplying its own laptops, mobile devices and printers to “relieve any burden of audit accountability and internal security requirements by the department,” the 2018 document reads.
In addition, the new document requires that Education employees file new paperwork every year to remain active union members — a move that AFGE called a “blatant attempt to suppress membership and weaken the union.”
Union activities and the use of official time has gotten more attention and interest from Congress in recent years.
Lawmakers considered a series of bills on official time last year, including the Official Time Reform Act. The legislation would prevent any days that an employee spends mostly on official time from counting toward his or her retirement annuity. Another bill limits the use of official time among certain employees at the Veterans Affairs Department. The full Congress has yet to pass either one of these bills.
Meanwhile, the administration’s relationship with federal unions has been tenuous over the past year, particularly in light of the president’s decision to disband a formal advisory panel designed to create and foster working partnerships between labor and management.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order last September, which formally disbanded the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations and abolished any forums or pre-decisional involvement structures that agencies had created to work with union representatives.
The Office of Personnel Management told agencies last December to abolish labor-management forums or otherwise justify the costs and benefits of keeping such partnerships.