Federal Employee Union Pickets Outside HHS Headquarters, Demands Bargaining

Erich Wagner / GovExec.com

Around 75 members of a federal employee union picketed outside of the Health and Human Services Department's headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, demanding that the department’s leadership return to the bargaining table to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.

Earlier this year, HHS officials declared an impasse in discussions with the National Treasury Employees Union in their negotiations for a new contract, sending proposals to the Federal Service Impasses Panel for arbitration.

Union officials said that management sat down for one day of negotiations but refused to even answer questions about their proposal, which would have stripped a variety of provisions from the existing contract, including transit subsidies, alternative work schedules and telework. NTEU has said HHS officials then sat down for “an hour or two” of negotiations with a mediator, at which point they declared an impasse.

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Union leaders, including members of the team that tried to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, said HHS’ actions constituted “bad faith bargaining,” which is prohibited by the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act.

“They gave us their proposal, but they had no interest in actually negotiating,” said April Goggans, president of NTEU Chapter 250. “I don’t think they understand the feeling of having to show up to work every day knowing that you literally aren’t respected [by management]. You’re just a cog in the wheel, and how you’re treated is not important to them.”

NTEU National President Tony Reardon told members that HHS’ efforts to move swiftly to the FSIP were a “sham,” intended to check the boxes of the collective bargaining process without actually negotiating with the union.

“To declare an impasse after one day of negotiations is unacceptable,” he said. “And to, after one day of mediation, send it to the Federal Service Impasses Panel, that is wrong. This agency, and Secretary [Alex] Azar do not value or care about ... employees.”

NTEU accused the department of continuing to push forward with provisions of a now-enjoined series of executive orders that sought to make it easier to fire federal workers, set time limits on contract negotiations and reduce the influence of unions at federal agencies. HHS has denied those claims, arguing that its proposals were offered independently from the presidential orders.

“HHS’ proposals were based solely on HHS’ discretion, not on the executive orders,” an HHS spokesperson told Government Executive last month. “The matter is pending before the Impasses Panel.”

But Ty Owens, who was in the negotiating sessions, said that argument does not pass muster.

“The proposals they gave us were almost word-for-word what the executive orders lay out,” said Owens, president of NTEU Chapter 229. “The orders were almost the exact same thing that was proposed. There was no negotiation: it was a take it or leave it situation.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said Trump administration officials are using the HHS-NTEU negotiations as a trial balloon to test how far they can go in eschewing traditional labor-management relations and practices.

“They are using HHS workers and NTEU as a test case to see if they can take down collective bargaining altogether in the federal sector,” she said. “[Stay] strong, because if you let this happen to you, you won’t be the last. It will be a wave across the federal sector.”

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