NIFA employees vote to unionize on heels of USDA relocation

Employees at the Agriculture Department's National Institute of Food and Agriculture on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted to unionize on the heels of USDA's proposed...

Employees at a second Agriculture Department subcomponent on Tuesday have overwhelmingly voted to unionize amid the agency’s plans to relocate the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service out of the national capital region.

NIFA employees voted 137 to 2 to unionize under the American Federation of Government Employees. The agency had determined that 180-to-185 NIFA employees were eligible to cast a ballot.

The NIFA vote came nearly a month after employees at the Economic Research Service also voted to unionize under AFGE.

About two dozen employees gathered in a small conference room at NIFA’s building near the Washington, D.C., waterfront. When representatives from the Federal Labor Relations Authority announced the final results, employees in the room cheered and joked that their vote tally nearly matched that of their ERS colleagues.

ERS employees voted 138-4 to unionize in early May. Like ERS, NIFA’s bargaining unit will consist of professional and non-professional employees.

FLRA will issue a certification officially recognizing the NIFA bargaining unit within the next five days or so. At that point, the union has the official legal status as the exclusive representative of NIFA’s 185 bargaining unit employees.

“We will work with this group of employees just as we work with all USDA employees,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said Tuesday in a statement to reporters. “I truly believe that the relocation of ERS and NIFA will help to fulfill USDA’s commitment to be the most effective, most efficient and most customer-focused agency in the federal government, allowing us to be closer to our stakeholders and to move our resources closer to our customers. Our commitment to the public and our employees is to continue to be transparent as we proceed.”

Peter Winch, a special assistant with AFGE who organized both votes for ERS and NIFA employees, said ERS union representatives are beginning to meet with agency management.

“We had a very good conversation about how they’re going to inform us about what their plans are,” Winch told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “They had a meeting at USDA headquarters last week, and our new union reps were invited there. We expect the same treatment from NIFA. We’ll continue our quest to get more information about these moves and how they’re spending money.”

Meanwhile, employees at NIFA’s grant office are scrambling to catch up on the work they missed from the 35-day government shutdown earlier this year. That, coupled with agency turnover, has forced NIFA to exhaust its overtime limit as employees work additional hours to issue grant funding to state and local entities, Winch said.

“They’ve had tremendous turnover as you’ve probably heard,” he said. “They are just stretched thin in the grant office. This kind of use of overtime is usually a sign of management in crisis.”

NIFA has a 26.4% vacancy rate with 88 open positions, according to a June 5 letter from Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to Perdue and GSA Administrator Emily Murphy. ERS has 66 open positions, the senators said.

Nearly a dozen Senate Democrats have said they oppose USDA’s relocation, citing concerns with the department’s handling of the leasing process with the General Services Administration and impacts on the ERS and NIFA workforce.

Members of Congress have, in multiple ways, tried to block the USDA relocation through standalone legislation and provisions in a 2020 House appropriations bill. Next year’s spending bill, which the House Appropriations Committee advanced a few weeks ago, includes specific language prohibiting the relocation. It also denies USDA the funds it had requested for the move.

The department has told House members it will share a cost benefit analysis for the move only after it has chosen a final site for the USDA relocation. House Democrats, in particular, are frustrated with this approach.

Multiple sites in Indiana, the Kansas City region, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle are under consideration as “finalists,” as USDA announced last month. The department is also considering sites in St. Louis, Missouri; and Madison, Wisconsin; if the other locations don’t work out.

A final site announcement is supposed to be imminent.

“If they are having second thoughts, if they’re thinking about what they want to say given the huge turnout today and a month ago at ERS, that’s all for the best. They should look at what this means and give it some thought,” Winch said of the relocation decision. “I see a loud and clear message, and I hope Sonny Perdue sees it too.”

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