WASHINGTON ― A group of economists, statisticians and other employees at the Agriculture Department voted overwhelmingly to form a union Thursday, hoping to use collective bargaining as a way to push back against new policies coming from the Trump administration.
About 200 workers at the agency’s Economic Research Service will be represented by the American Federation of Government Employees, assuming the election results are ratified by a federal agency. The preliminary vote count was 138 in favor of unionizing, 4 against.
At a rally downtown ahead of the election, several ERS employees told HuffPost they were deeply worried about changes at the agency undertaken by political appointees, particularly a plan to move most of the workforce to a new, yet-to-be-determined location outside the Washington area.
They hoped having union representation would force more transparency about such plans and give them a seat at the table with an administration many view as hostile to their mission.
“It’s a form of protection,” explained one employee, who, like others, asked to speak anonymously for fear of being retaliated against. “All these little things pile up and [right now] we have no way to stop them. We’re optimistic the union can force the USDA to follow guidelines.”
The ERS produces research on agriculture and rural economies that helps steer policy decisions affecting everything from farmers and trade to commodities and food stamps. As the rural news site The Daily Yonder put it, “There is no comparable public source of information about the economic and social conditions of rural America.”
“All these little things pile up and [right now] we have no way to stop them. We’re optimistic the union can force the USDA to follow guidelines.”
The Trump administration has been waging a battle against the federal civil service, and many ERS employees feel like prime targets. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced plans last year to pull the service closer to his office, by putting it under the USDA’s chief economist ― a prospect that stirred fears of political meddling in independent research. Perdue said much of the agency would also be moved geographically, potentially upending employees’ lives in the Washington area.
Politico reported earlier this week that the turmoil has led many economists to leave the agency already, leading to a “brain-drain of experienced researchers.” Departures not related to retirement have roughly doubled compared with an earlier three-year average, according to Politico.
One ERS employee told HuffPost that over the years a lot of economists and statisticians at the service had been reluctant to unionize ― even those inclined to support unions ideologically ― because they felt it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. But they have a different calculus now, with many facing the prospect of having to relocate if they want to keep their jobs.
“It all changed when the move came and we realized how little leverage we have,” he explained, noting that, like many of his colleagues, he is now looking for another job. “They [agency leadership] know full well you do real damage to an agency when you move it. The notion that this is about making ERS more effective, that’s patent nonsense.”
The new office is expected to end up in the Kansas City area, Indiana or North Carolina ― a move that Perdue has said would put it closer to the country’s farming communities. Several ERS employees said they felt the relocation was intended to move jobs out of liberal Washington and into a red state, or simply encourage them to quit.
The union AFGE has criticized a number of agencies for attrition under the Trump administration, as employees leave and are slow to be replaced, thanks in part to a temporary hiring freeze after Trump took office. The union, which represents some 700,000 federal workers, was a prominent critic of the White House during the record-setting government shutdown that ended in January.
Peter Winch, a special assistant at AFGE, said the union felt it was important to get involved in the situation at the Agriculture Department, fearing the relocation could set a dangerous example for other agencies.
“We don’t want this to become a pattern for how you [an administration] deal with an agency you don’t like,” he said.
As for the relocation plan, Winch added, “They’ll decimate the existing workforce for no specific reason they’ve identified.”