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USDA Employees Vote to Join Union

The employees where pushed to join AFGE after Trump proposed moving their jobs to the Midwest

Brian Young's picture
May 30, 2019

A group of economists, statisticians and other employees at the Agriculture Department (USDA) have voted to join the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) after Trump and his political appointees decided to move their job locations outside of Washington D.C.

The employees, who work at the agency’s Economic Research Service (ERS), produce research on agriculture and rural economies. This research helps to steer policy decisions on everything from farm policy to trade to commodities and food stamps.

The organizing vote was made in response to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's plan to move the department closer to the farmers that they serve. Possible locations being considered include Kansas City, Indiana or North Carolina. This would mean uprooting their families from the Washington D.C. area and moving to much smaller cities or communities.

In addition to the move, ERS staff believe that they are being targeted by the Trump administration. Currently, ERS provides independent, non-partisan research for the US government. However, with farmers being in the news a lot recently due to Trump’s trade war, farm policy is suddenly a front page news story. Since the ERS provides independent research, it is hard for the USDA to control the information they put out. Many believe that a recent move by Perdue to pull the ERS closer to his office is meant to impede their independence.

“Under the Trump administration, the USDA is suppressing the publication of scientific research that ERS employees conduct and has proposed upending employees’ lives by relocating the agency outside the nation’s capital,” AFGE President J. David Cox Sr said. “ERS employees have done the right thing by organizing a strong union so that they will be more effective in defending the important work they do on the public’s behalf.”

In response to these moves, ERS has seen a brain drain of researchers. According to Politico departures from the agency have doubled in the past year. The staff that decided to stay at ERS found that without a union they have almost no recourse to stop these changes. Here is what one staff member told the HuffPost:

“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.”

Employees at ERS voted 138 in favor and 4 opposed to joining AFGE. The unit will be comprised of 204 employees. While the ERS election is being verified, employees at another USDA agency, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), also will vote soon whether to join AFGE. The NIFA unit would comprise about 235 employees. NIFA employees would also be affected by the USDA’s plan to move employees outside of the Washington D.C. area.

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