The biggest federal employee union expands its international presence

Some 10,000 federal employees working in Europe will soon be eligible for the American Federation of Government Employees. AFGE has launched a new local, as it ...

Some 10,000 federal employees working in Europe will soon be eligible for the American Federation of Government Employees. AFGE has launched a new local, as it expands coverage. For the details,  the Federal Drive with Tom Temin was joined in studio by Peter Winch, AFGE Special Assistant.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin Give us the situation now for employees in Europe. This is not a brand new footprint for AFGE entirely, is it?

Peter Winch AFGE is the largest federal employee union and the largest union for [Department of Defense (DoD)] employees. That’s the main group that’s in Europe. And we’ve always had a few members in Europe, and we’re trying to get a lot more right now.

Tom Temin So the Department of Defense then dwarfs, say, the State Department presence or [United States Agency For International Development (USAID)] and some of the other agents that have a regular foreign overseas presence.

Peter Winch That’s right. Recently, the Biden administration made available information about federal employees who don’t currently have a union and could be organized. And they’re showing about 10,000 federal civilian employees in Europe. Almost all of them are from Department of Defense.

Tom Temin And you are forming a local, so it’s really a geographical local, more than an agency local or a function like Social Security or [Veterans Affairs (VA)].

Peter Winch Those 10,000, more than a thousand of them work for Defense Health Agency, which is a newly created part of DoD. And although it’s Europe wide, most of them are in Germany. That’s where the concentration of federal civilian employment is, in Europe.

Tom Temin So that’s 1,000. What about the other 9,000?

Peter Winch They typically work for the Army or the Navy. One of our existing locals is at Naval Air station Naples, and we’re trying to build that local up as well. What we hope is that this new local, Local 14, will spawn other locals who will hold [Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA)] recognition elections, like for Defense Health Agency, Europe region. And we’ll go from there. And we’re getting a tremendous amount of interest. People have been calling us, really since Biden has been elected. We get a lot of issues raised to us and no recourse for federal employees. So we want to give the federal employees over in Europe some recourse.

Tom Temin And when you say FLRA selection to organize under the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

Peter Winch Yes, I’m sorry, the acronyms are Federal Labor Relations Authority ensures that federal employees have the right to a secret ballot election on union representation, if they want one. And it appears to us that many federal employees in Europe do want to have a union. So AFGE is ready to be that union for them.

Tom Temin Right now, when they have that election and say, yes, we want to do this. That doesn’t automatically get AFGE in there. What if they said, well, [National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU)] or something?

Peter Winch We have to gather a showing of interest from the federal employees in order to ask the FLRA to hold an election.

Tom Temin So you will be sort of there before the election. And therefore, you would presume. Well, since they got us to this point, that’s the union we want.

Peter Winch We now have one of my colleagues living in Germany and able to provide representation for people who join AFGE in Europe. Especially in Germany, but Europe-wide. And his name is Javier Soto. And he’s been a AFGE internee for many years now. He’s living in Germany and ready to represent dues paying members over there with [Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)] complaints, Merit System Protection Board and other statutory type complaints. We don’t have a negotiated grievance procedure in place yet, but that would be our ultimate aim.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Peter Winch. He’s special assistant to the national vice president for District 14 of the American Federation of Government Employees. Now there’s District 13 that’s going away. You’re reorganizing a little bit the union itself there, correct?

Peter Winch Originally, the AFGE districts were set up on the old Civil Service Commission and there were 15 of them. The 15th District, we emerged with the 14th sometime ago, and it covered Europe. So at times we had several locals in Europe. But as I say, we only have one of those remaining. But what happened was, Department of Defense put in a rotation policy. Most of our members had to rotate out after a couple of years. We lost our leadership, and now things are different. Post-COVID, we can do a lot on teleconferencing. We have an AFGE lawyer stationed in Germany, and we’re ready to use new technology to rebuild in Europe. And that’s what’s different.

Tom Temin Got it. And you do have some employees in Europe, in DoD already.

Peter Winch Defense Contract Management Agency Europe is organized and part of AFGE. I happen to have organized them a few years ago. We want to do similar things with Defense Logistics Agency, which has a large warehouse operation, logistics operation in Germany. And federal civilian employment is growing in Europe, because of some of the tensions and conflicts that we hear about in the Ukraine and so on.

Tom Temin And what’s the selling proposition? Why should someone want to join AFGE?

Peter Winch What we hear is that ,like Defense Health Agency, instead of a two or three year rotation, they’re now offering a seven year rotation, which is pretty much permanent employment in Europe. But you have to stay in your supervisor’s good graces at all times or right back to the states you go. And that is not the kind of process that AFGE favors. We favor due process and predictability. We think DoD should start moving away from this rotation idea in general. But we think federal employees deserve to be able to be whistleblowers, to raise questions on the job and not have the threat of being returned to the United States immediately, which is where they are now.

Tom Temin And when they are returned to the United States outside of the regular rotation, or even at the point of rotation, they stay with the same agency?

Peter Winch Generally speaking, it’s back to a base where you worked previously. If you’re defense contract management agency, they work in, often they work doing quality control in a defense contractor plant. And so they’d come back to the United States.

Tom Temin So the worry is if they blow the whistle now and get immediately rotated, they could be rotated from a nice office doing brain power type of work to being relegated to a steel desk at the back of a warehouse with nothing to do. That’s how my mind runs.

Peter Winch If I’m a quality assurance worker, in Europe, I’ll come back and do that same work in Georgia or wherever I came from. There’s an attraction to working in Europe, which is why they started this rotation. But some of the reasons DoD offered, was that technology was different. Those things just don’t apply anymore. And it would be better to have the stable workforce, especially in medical fields, you want to have a continuity of care and you don’t want your doctors rotating out. Nurses and doctors are very hard to hire right now, and you don’t want to have this really not defensible rotation policy continuous.

Tom Temin So it’s more predictable and more stable than for both the employee and the agency.

Peter Winch AFGE is a mission supporting union. We support DoD’s mission. And what we’re trying to do in Europe is to be a mission supporting union. To have an advocate on the job for your interests as a federal employee and to support the mission of your DoD agency.

Tom Temin And what are the timelines and schedules here? When does this election take place? When does it get certified? And how long will this all take?

Peter Winch Well, we would hope to file for an election Defense Health Agency continent-wide. And we have a new logo, which is based on our U.S. logo with the map of Europe. And we have a new card for people to fill out if they want to have an election at their workplace. And if they contact AFGE, and we’re getting a lot of contacts, they can join by what we call E-dues. So I work for District 14, we have Local 14 and the dues are $14. If you’re an at large member, and if we succeed in these elections, it’ll be $20 and you get all the benefits of membership then.

Tom Temin But you hope for that election to take place in 2023?

Peter Winch I believe with the interest we’ve gotten, our plan would be to file a few elections this year, and to build up a real presence in Europe with hundreds of members.

Tom Temin And after an election, say the majority of people at a particular site say, yes, we want this. Is there an audit process before FLRA certifies it?

Peter Winch The ballot goes to the eligible employees and they vote. The choice of no union must always appear on the ballot in the federal government. If they vote for union representation, AFGE is certified, and then DoD has a legal obligation to bargain in good faith with AFGE.


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