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USDA Economists Seek to Unionize Amid Relocation Effort

Employees at the Economic Research Service describe the plan to move the agency outside of D.C. and under the Office of the Chief Economist as an "existential threat."

Later this year, employees at the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service will vote on whether to join the nation’s largest federal employee union, in an effort to protect themselves as the department considers whether to relocate the agency outside of the Washington, D.C., region.

Peter Winch, special assistant to the American Federation of Government Employees’ District 14 national vice president, told Government Executive that he filed paperwork with the Federal Labor Relations Authority last week to move forward with a union election at the research service, which USDA leadership plans to move and realign under the department’s Office of the Chief Economist.

“[The FLRA] was closed during the shutdown, but I had collected the showing of interest right around the new year,” Winch said. “There was a strong showing of interest, and we want to represent all of the employees no matter where they end up located, and potentially stop them from being shipped out to some other location.”

Winch said that although it is not necessarily predictive of the results of a union election, which he expects to happen by June, more than half of the proposed bargaining unit signed onto the petition seeking union representation.

One Economic Research Service employee, who asked to remain anonymous citing potential retaliation, said they hope that with a union’s backing, they can shed light on the department’s process to relocate the agency.

“This whole relocation and realignment under the Office of the Chief Economist took us by surprise, and that was last August, and since then there’s been no engagement with staff,” the employee told Government Executive. “There’s been no interest in finding out how this would affect our work, or what it would do to the stats we create on a weekly or monthly basis . . . Unionization helps in the sense that it requires the administration to talk to the employees or anything along those lines.”

The employee noted that although the Agriculture Department claims it has done a cost-benefit analysis that supports the relocation plan, officials have refused to divulge that study. Another employee of the agency said that they suspect the plan is part of an effort to politicize what has been until now an unbiased research organization, something the first employee described as an “existential threat.”

“One thing that’s really important about our agency is that we’re one of the 13 principal statistical agencies, and so our mission is to provide the public with objective data, analysis and objective policy-relevant research,” the employee said. “I think that the decision to relocate us outside the region is just one example of the many ways there can be threats to our ability to further our mission . . . Administrations don’t always necessarily like the work that we do or agree with results of the work that we do, and that’s happened with every administration. So this unionization effort is another way to protect us as individuals and as a whole from retaliation for the important work that we do to provide information to the public.”

Although the plan to relocate the agency outside of D.C. and reorganize it under the Office of the Chief Economist is not yet final, and has at times faced push back from Congress, it is already having an effect on morale and employee retention.

“There is a lot of human capital talent kept in the agency because of our ability to be nonpolitical, to just do our research and whatever the results show is what we end up publishing . . . that’s what drives people to do the research,” a third employee said. “To put it into a political office, and to downplay the institutional costs of losing such human capital speaks to a lack of understanding [of what we do]. I would say that maybe half to two thirds of our most talented younger researchers are actively looking [for other jobs], and we’ve already lost a lot of good people.”

Correction: The story has been updated to reflect that the Economic Research Service would be realigned under the Office of the Chief Economist, not the Office of the Chief Scientist.