AFGE set to negotiate after more feds overseas opt for representation

After about 200 more federal employees in Germany voted to unionize, negotiations are about to get underway between AFGE and the U.S. Army.

In the months since expanding one of its districts overseas, the American Federation of Government Employees is gaining even more traction in representing federal employees stationed in Europe.

After federal employees working at two locations in Germany voted to unionize on May 1, the Federal Labor Relations Authority issued a certificate of representation Tuesday, marking the start of the negotiations process between AFGE and the U.S. Army.

“We’re at the very, very beginning — even prior to the beginning — of a bargaining relationship with these new bargaining units we’ve picked up,” AFGE District 14 Special Assistant Peter Winch said in an interview with Federal News Network. “We have model contracts that we’ll present to them and see if they’re willing to agree to those model contract languages, but it’s all negotiable. It’s not just AFGE staff; we have to ask [employees] what they want … We will try to get those changes that they are looking for.”

The two groups of feds who just gained union representation are IT workers at the Army Enterprise Service Desk, 2nd Signal Brigade, in Kaiserslautern, Germany, as well as non-appropriated fund (NAF) employees working various hospitality jobs at the Army’s Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. In total, there are about 200 newly represented employees between the two locations.

“We organized the ski instructors and the massage therapists, and also the cooks and the custodians — hotel guest services,” Winch said. “They voted for AFGE representation, and this is the result of people coming to us.”

The collective bargaining road ahead

The two elections in May add two more bargaining units to the already-existing unit of nearly 400 civilian employees working for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) at the Kaiserslautern Military Community Center Exchange in Germany. That group of employees voted for union representation with AFGE in December 2023, and was automatically covered under the existing contract between AAFES and AFGE.

But for the two new units, Winch said the collective bargaining process will work a little differently. Negotiations will begin soon on a new contract, in which AFGE plans to incorporate standard provisions like a grievance procedure, dues deductions and official time. But other components will likely be included in negotiations as well, such as safety equipment and a clothing allowance.

Having union representation also means employees have more of a voice when there are issues with management, or any concerns that arise on the job.

“It runs the gamut, from basic Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) issues — discrimination or nepotism in hiring — to issues that get down to the scheduling of work and assignments, and promotions and appraisals,” AFGE District 14 Legal Rights Attorney Javier Soto said in an interview. “Our goal is to work with employees to achieve that level of participation needed to get to that point of an election.”

Another common issue for civilian DoD employees in Europe is “bait-and-switch,” a tactic where management offers one job to an employee who agrees to go overseas, only for that employee to be told they would be working in a different position once they arrived. Having union representation, AFGE officials have said, should help employees push back in those instances.

Additionally, AFGE is looking to address the current work rotation policy for employees stationed in Europe. The policy places restrictions on how feds can serve overseas.

“Say, in a hospital, you want the continuity of care, you want people who understand the patient base that comes in there,” Winch said. “I don’t think the rotation policy is in the best interest of the government now. We don’t have a position on exactly what should happen — on whether it should be repealed or just changed. We want to hear from our members what they want and go from there.”

AFGE aiming to take representation further

The process to gaining representation at the two new locations also garnered pushback and resistance from some managers, Soto and Winch said. But moving forward, the sentiment from AFGE is still largely hopeful.

“In terms of traction, we’re getting there,” Soto said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about unions in the federal workplace in Europe. For both the employees and management, it’s a learning process.”

“We’ll just keep saying to bargaining unit employees, ‘This is your legal right to form a union, to be represented on the job,’” Winch added. “In case you want to change working conditions, or you face discipline, you’ll be better off if you have a union. The morale will be better, the mission will be accomplished better.”

Although there are so far just a couple hundred bargaining unit employees overseas, the growth may eventually become much more immense. Last year’s expansion of District 14 made about 10,000 civilian employees serving overseas in Europe eligible for AFGE representation. AFGE also recently ironed out a contract for AFGE Local 3712, representing employees stationed in Naples, Italy, who are part of the U.S. Naval Support Activity for the Europe and Africa Navy Region.

And AFGE is certainly aiming to take that representation further. The union expects more elections to come, and is hoping to expand to all Defense Health Agency employees in Europe, as well as those at the Defense Logistics Agency. At DHA and DLA, new bargaining units would come automatically under the already-existing master agreement. AFGE officials also plan to accommodate other groups of federal employees outside of DHA and DLA as the interest and needs arise.

“There are many thousands of federal DoD employees, especially in Europe, who could really use the union on the job,” Winch said. “AFGE is interested in representing all the DoD employees who want a union and our whole federation is finding this intriguing, to be able to go back into Europe with Zoom calls and be able to represent in a distant ‘tele-manner’ that we didn’t [use] pre-COVID. So, we’re trying to adapt and overcome. And I think it’s working.”

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