Scientists, Researchers Resist USDA’s Relocation Plan in Powerful Display of Defiance

Categories: The Insider

The Trump administration’s efforts to undermine scientific work has led scientists, researchers, and other employees at two research agencies at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take action in defiance of the agency’s relocation plan.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) on June 11 overwhelmingly voted to form a union, joining its sister agency, the Economic Research Service (ERS), which voted to form a union and join AFGE in May.

In response to USDA’s announcement on June 12 that the two agencies will be moved from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City, ERS scientists and researchers June 13 took collective action. They attended a meeting with USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue where he “discussed” the relocation plan. Instead of sitting and listening quietly, the employees stood up and turned their backs on him for the duration of his remarks. This act of defiance sent a powerful message to Perdue that the staff of ERS and NIFA strongly oppose the administration’s plan to relocate their jobs and interfere with their research.

“Secretary Perdue continually speaks of transparency and communicating to employees but has failed on both fronts,” said Kevin Hunt, AFGE Local 3403 vice president for ERS. “The announcement today highlights his disregard for the rights and well-being of employees. Instead of soliciting input from stakeholders or negotiating with bargaining unit employees, Secretary Perdue went behind closed doors to solicit ‘best offers’ and ‘incentives’ from the short-list sites. The announcement today is a clear indication that Secretary Perdue does not have the best interests of federal employees or taxpayers in mind.”

Condemning the relocation

Blasting USDA’s relocation efforts, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) announced June 14 he would introduce a measure in a must-pass Defense bill to block the relocation. Last month, he introduced a stand-alone bill to prohibit the move of ERS and NIFA out of the National Capital Region. He has also put a hold on the USDA’s chief scientist nominee to underscore his concerns.

“Secretary Perdue is trying to move ahead with this misguided decision – despite the fact that he has offered no clear justification for the relocation and in spite of strong opposition by the men and women who work at these agencies,” Van Hollen said. “The experts at NIFA and ERS need a seat at the table as we work to ensure the food our families eat is safe, but the Trump Administration wants to banish facts and science from policy decisions. I’m offering my legislation to block this move as an amendment to the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) bill this week, and I will continue to fight this tooth and nail.”

AFGE also condemned USDA’s draft reassignment letter sent to the ERS local. The letter is a fine example of the Trump administration’s shameful treatment of our country’s civil servants. Employees were given just 30 days to decide whether to uproot their families and move halfway across the country – with no consideration for the fact that many employees must do things like remove their children from schools, find new health care providers, and make other life-altering changes.

“Employees at ERS and NIFA spoke loudly and clearly by coming together to organize a union and demanding a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect their work – including transferring their jobs outside Washington,” Cox said. “The USDA has provided no rational justification to employees, to Congress, or to its stakeholders for this move, which will make it harder for the agencies to coordinate with other science and research agencies. We will continue to work with Congress and other parties to fight this wrongheaded proposal, which is little more than a backdoor way to slash the workforce and silence the parts of the agencies’ research that the administration views as inconvenient.”

At a congressional hearing last week, lawmakers heard from three agency stakeholders – a farmer as well as an administrator and professor from two land-grant universities – all of whom were opposed to relocating the agencies outside D.C.

“The researchers and other stakeholders we work with don’t want us to move – they want us to stay right here in Washington, where we can easily coordinate with the other federal science agencies,” said AFGE Local 3403 President Dave Verardo, whose local represents the ERS and NIFA employees.

Secretary Perdue has stated that his rush to finalize the relocation is an attempt to limit the anxiety and burden on employees. In reality, his announcement today does the opposite by accelerating the loss of mission-critical staff who cannot or will not move to a new location,” Verardo said. “Despite assurances that this relocation is not an attempt to shrink the workforce, we are losing staff and unable to replace them due to this induced uncertainty.”

The proposed relocation of both scientific agencies is part of a larger effort by the administration to undermine employees’ scientific research.

NIFA forms a union

With a whopping 75% turnout, NIFA employees, who are mainly scientists but also grants officers and support staff, voted 137 to 2 to form a union, rejecting USDA’s plan to relocate them outside Washington, D.C., a move many see as a retaliation for parts of their research that Trump’s political appointees disagree with.

NIFA, for example, funds scientific research on the possible effects of climate change on American agriculture. It also provides grants to study how to encourage LGBT youth to participate in 4-H, which drew a lot of negative attention from the NIFA political appointees, USDA leadership, and the Trump administration.

In the morning before the election, employees rallied in front of NIFA’s building to remind their colleagues of the election and discuss the importance of forming a union. Their collective action built a lot of excitement around the vote.

There were at least 75 employees lined up in the hall to vote when the polls opened, and a mother who is currently on maternity leave came in with her five-week old in her arms just to exercise her right to form a union. The employees had previously arranged to have those in training or on all-day grant panels to jump to the head of the line so they could quickly return to their duties. Several supervisors, confidential employees, and equal employment opportunity counselors came in to cast pro-union votes even though their votes couldn’t be counted as they’re not part of a bargaining unit.

"The vote to form a union was one of the only tangible actions we have been allowed to take. I want AFGE representation to give voice to our concerns and hold the Secretary responsible for his much-touted motto of ‘Do Right and Feed Everyone,’” said a NIFA employee. “Relocation plans are not doing right for NIFA and ERS employees, their stakeholders, or the American people. It will disrupt and even destroy the important contributions that federally-funded food and agricultural sciences make toward feeding people. We must stand together and speak up for what’s right."

“Union representation is important to me because the process of the NIFA/ERS relocation is disrespectful, insidious, and shrouded in negligence to the employees and the constituents we serve,” another NIFA employee chimed in. “Without representation, the work we do for our nation’s agriculture will continue to be devalued and undermined. It is more than just fighting to stay in our nation’s capital. We need our voices heard loud and clear to protect the work we do in order to continue serving the citizens of the United States of America.”

By establishing a union at the worksite, NIFA is legally required to notify employees in advance of any proposed changes to their working conditions and to bargain with the union in good faith over those proposed changes. In addition, employees in the bargaining unit will gain the legal right to have a union representative present at any meeting in which disciplinary action may result, known as Weingarten rights.

 


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