Education’s new union terms have employees feeling demoralized, confused by inconsistent policies

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The American Federation of Government Employees said it won’t back down from its fight against the Education Department, which ended negotiations with the union and instead is implementing its own terms.

AFGE, which represents some Education employees, said it did not agree to these new terms. It filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, and multiple union leaders are fearful other labor organizations at other agencies may soon experience something similar.

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“An organization works well when everybody knows the rules by which we play,” AFGE Council 252 President Claudette Young said. “You can’t make them up as you go along like they did with this contract. It’s scary; it’s devastating. … They’re trying to do this at the Department of Education. Every union will be affected by it.”

Since the department announced and began to implement a new document with its own terms earlier this month, the union leadership said Education employees are receiving inconsistent guidance about telework and the process they must follow to file a grievance.

Education’s new document removes a bevy of previously agreed to policies on the agency’s telework, training and disability exceptions, among others. The agency’s new document is 40 pages long and contains eight articles. The previous collective bargaining agreement, which the two parties signed back in 2013, is 186 pages and includes 44 articles.

“It takes away clear guidance about work arrangements, Family Medical Leave Act, reasonable accommodations,” Sharon Harris, executive vice president for Council 252 and president of Local 2607 in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday at an AFGE rally outside the Education Department headquarters. “It’s as though they just deleted all these things from the contract so they could impose whatever takes us back some 300 years, back before there was collective bargaining or contracts.”

Some employees have been told not to telework, while others are allowed to continue their usual telework habits, Young said.

The Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the rally or a request for further clarification about the agency’s telework policy.

Young said removing those 36 previously-agreed-to articles isn’t in the best interest of the agency’s employees.

“You could hate the union, but don’t you care about your workers?” she said.

Young also said Education is no longer recognizing any of AFGE’s other elected officials for the department.

“Everything comes through me, every grievance, every physical move, everything,” Young said. “This is for all of the employees here and the 10 regions.”

Education, when asked to comment earlier this month, said the union had “spent more than a year dragging its feet on ground rules negotiations.” Young, however, said the union and the agency held about six or seven sessions to begin debating the ground rules for the negotiations.

“That absolutely is not correct,” Young said. “We were making progress. That’s the way negotiations go. Everybody doesn’t get everything that they want, but we were moving forward toward solidifying ground rules.”

Young said AFGE and the agency had negotiated ground rules for the last collective bargaining agreement the two parties struck in 2013. She said the union asked to use the previous negotiation’s ground rules, but Young said the department refused.

Meanwhile, morale among the agency’s employees is low, several union leaders said.

“It’s very disheartening,” Harris said. “We’ve never seen anything like this. Most of us, union officials I’m speaking about, have been employees at the agency for at least 20 years or better. We’ve never seen management take this type of action against the union. We thought that at some point we were developing a good partnership with management and able to work through a lot of labor concerns that we thought were assisting them to meet the mission. But obviously we were wrong.”

Education employees in other parts of the country are also noticing the effects of the department’s decision.

“They’re fearful,” said Athena Quezada, national chief steward for Council 252 in Denver, Colorado. “They’re afraid, and so they’re talking to me in the evenings. They’re calling my personal cellphone. They’re giving me their personal cellphone [and] their email address, and I’m forced to do all union-related work on my own time in the evening when I arrive home, sometimes up until 1:30 a.m.”

In addition, Education’s new document restricts most union officials from using the department’s office space or supplies.

Harris said she and her colleagues in the union turned in all of their agency-issues laptops, phones and other devices earlier this week. The department told Harris that her local in Washington must vacate their offices by Apr. 11, she said.

“We are in the mode of acting now to move out,” Harris said. “We’ve had to make some other arrangements. Of course our national organization is looking out for us and assigning us to a space until we get through this fight.”

“I’ve never ever heard of a government charging its employees rent,” she added.

Several AFGE members say they fear what happened to them at the Education Department may soon become the norm at other agencies.

“This is the Trump administration’s latest and dramatic attack on federal labor organizations, and its implications [go] far beyond the roughly 4,000 employees affected by this new agreement,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said at Wednesday’s rally.

AFGE members agreed.

“We know that the Department of Education, we’re the sample rule, we’re the test group,” Harris said. “If this goes through where it’s imposed and not remedied for this federal agency, it is going to have a domino effect and go to other agencies.”