Fearing Politicization of Their Work, Researchers Seek to Join AFGE

Categories: The Insider

Researchers and economists at two federal agencies have reached out to our union to seek representation following the Trump administration’s attempt to relocate employees out of Washington, D.C. – a move many believe is a retaliation for their science-based research that contradicts the administration’s position on various issues including climate change and taxes.

The Trump administration last year announced its plan to relocate the Department of Agriculture’s research agencies – the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) – to locations outside of Washington D.C. this summer.

The administration is also moving ERS out from USDA's Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission-area and into the Office of Secretary (OSEC), where it will be subject to political influence. Purdue's plan to make ERS a part of OSEC will jeopardize its ability to continue to provide fact-based policy analysis.

“We think one of the motives behind the relocation is retaliation for some of our research and publications,” said an ERS employee who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

The agency does a lot of research on food stamps, which the administration wants to cut, and climate change, which the administration denies. It also published research on the tax bill that passed Congress last year. Its publication, which was picked up by the New York Times, details how the tax law will hurt lower-income farmers while 70-80% of the benefits will go to the richest 1% of farm households.

Employees have been kept in the dark over details of the relocation, which has hurt morale and caused confusion. The move was also announced unexpectedly with a short timeline for compliance, so employees are being forced to find another job or risk moving to an undisclosed location as soon as this fall. The ERS has about 260 employees, including 37 managers and supervisors, but many are seeking other opportunities following the announced move.

The administration also tried to cut ERS' budget by 60% as part of the fiscal 2018 appropriation, but that money was restored by Congress.

“One thing that’s really important about our agency is that we’re one of the 13 principal statistical agencies, and so our mission is to provide the public with objective data, analysis and objective policy-relevant research,” another employee said. “I think that the decision to relocate us outside the region is just one example of the many ways there can be threats to our ability to further our mission.”

The fear of research being politicized and the lack of transparency in the decision-making process worry not only employees, but stakeholders such as universities and agriculture organizations. More than 100 organizations joined together and urged Congress to delay the relocation plan until their concerns about the impact and cost are fully addressed.

Union petition

Our union has filed a union election petition with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, with an expected election for ERS in June. We are in the process of filing an election petition for NIFA. Since employees of both agencies have been left in the dark over the plan since it was announced last summer, employees hope that having union representation would increase transparency.

Under pressure from members of Congress, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he will submit to Congress a “very serious cost-benefit analysis” used to justify the relocations of the two agencies.

It’s unclear when Perdue will submit the analysis, but according to the employees, he’s moving ahead with the plan. Even though the relocations are not part of USDA’s 2019 appropriations bill, employees said Perdue believes he has the authority to do so without congressional approval.

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