At an awards ceremony for Environmental Protection Agency workers July 10, scientist Loreen Targos took over the stage with a sign: “I care about EPA workers having a fair contract to address public health and climate change. Do you?”
Targos is a Government Employees (AFGE) Local 704 steward who was being honored, along with her co-workers, for superior service in the clean-up of contaminated wetlands in the Great Lakes region.
The target of her message, EPA head Andrew Wheeler, is overseeing a unilateral directive that makes it easier for the administration to fire workers, limits workers to one day per week of remote work, evicts union officers from federal office space, and drastically cuts down on the union time available to members.
The government had forced a breakdown in contract negotiations with AFGE, even after an arbitrator ordered the two sides to continue talking. Then the EPA imposed its own version unilaterally. The union has filed an unfair labor practice charge.
Similar moves to undercut worker power are underway in the Departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services, the Social Security Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration.
“We believe that this administration is trying to destroy the civil service,” said Nicole Cantello, an environmental attorney and president of AFGE Local 704, which represents 1,000 EPA workers in the Midwest.
The EPA has 14,172 employees, spread among its headquarters, 10 regional offices, and 27 laboratories around the country. This workforce has fallen steadily from a high of 18,000 in 1999. It regulates environmental pollution and fuel efficiency, studies and teaches about environmental issues, and cleans up hazardous waste sites.
The steps against AFGE members are likely to be extended to other unions at the EPA, said AFGE Local 3428 President Steve Calder, who represents 400 members in Massachusetts. He is an inspector under the Clean Air Act.
Cantello said these steps “are being imposed on those agencies that Trump is hostile to. It’s a way of undercutting the policy objectives of those agencies.”
She added, “They’re not imposing them on U.S. Customs and Border Protection or the Department of Defense.”
While the Trump administration recently approved a 2.6 percent pay increase for federal employees, it also locked out much of the federal workforce in the government shutdown last winter and issued three executive orders last year that reduced rights to grieve, shortened performance improvement plans to 30 days, and reduced union time. Those executive orders are currently being reviewed in the courts.
Most recently, the administration proposed a rule that makes it even easier to remove or discipline federal employees.
Union leaders say that when workers are constantly concerned that they can be fired for little or no reason, they can’t do a good job enforcing the laws—especially ones that their superiors are determined to undercut.
A Republican-allied firm, America Rising, was reported by Mother Jones to be filing Freedom of Information Act requests fishing for evidence that Targos and other EPA employees had violated the Hatch Act.
The Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in some political activities. Individual EPA employees are being targeted because they made campaign contributions to progressive politicians like Ilhan Omar and Bernie Sanders.
Union leaders believe the prohibition on most remote work is meant to drive out experienced workers. Their loss would hurt the work that EPA employees are doing on climate change and environmental health and safety.
AFGE Local 1236 is based in the Bay Area, one of the highest-rent markets in the country. As a result, many staff work remotely part of the week, allowing them to live further away and in less expensive housing. In fact, the EPA’s offices in northern California were purposely built to accommodate people who spend only part of their work lives onsite.
“This is another way to make people uncomfortable in their jobs,” said local president and EPA attorney Bethany Dreyfus.
“For my bargaining unit, we do the legal work for the region: Superfund sites, air and water enforcement,” Dreyfus said. “Losing people is just going to make getting that work done even harder.”
The directive also cuts down drastically on union time and evicts union officials from their federal offices. The result is paralysis on personnel issues.
“So many personnel matters that were proceeding smoothly are now being disrupted,” said Cantello. Important questions go unresolved for weeks because management can talk to her only before or after work. “It’s completely not efficient,” she said.
Local 704 now has only about 900 hours of union time per year to use for all the work done by officers, stewards, the union council, and members.
All told, the impact is going to be that “you can’t really grieve” disciplinary matters, Targos said. Because of the restriction on union time, “if there’s a problem with management, union members or stewards can’t really go with a member.”
“The president and others he’s put in charge at EPA have decided, ‘We don’t care about federal employees, we don’t respect federal employees, we want them to be at-will employees with no security,’” said Calder.
The federal workforce, not known for militant activity, is growing restless under these efforts to undercut its work rights and unions.
In addition to Targos’s protest, Local 704 held a 75-person rally July 8 in Chicago. Rallies of such size are rare for the federal workforce, which faces many restrictions on its ability to contest management actions, including a ban on strikes.
In the Bay Area, Dreyfus has tried to publicize the attacks by penning op-eds in prominent outlets like The Hill and contacting legislators.
In Boston, members of Local 3428 held a small rally July 16 directed at visiting members of the Labor and Employee Relations Division of the EPA.
And in New York City, workers in Local 3911 and other AFGE members held a rally August 27 protesting the unilateral directive and other attacks on the federal workforce.
“This is the most unrest I’ve ever seen in my 29 years,” said Cantello.