EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks at EPA headquarters in Washington in September.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler speaks at EPA headquarters in Washington in September. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

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Senate Democrats Decry EPA’s Decision to Unilaterally Impose Union Contract

A letter from 41 lawmakers to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the decision to cease negotiations with the nation’s largest employee union and unilaterally implement a new contract showed a “disregard” for the law.

A group of 41 Senate Democrats on Tuesday demanded that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler explain why the agency cut off talks early in negotiations with the American Federation of Government Employees and unilaterally implemented a new union contract.

In July, the EPA implemented a new contract—over union objections—that evicted union representatives from agency office space, severely restricted the use of telework and blocked employees from filing grievances over disciplinary actions, among other changes. The decision came after AFGE and EPA could not reach agreement on ground rules for talks, a discussion that occurs early in the collective bargaining negotiation process.

Ordinarily, when parties cannot reach an agreement in negotiations, whether on contract proposals or ground rules, they seek assistance from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and if that fails, from the Federal Service Impasses Panel or through arbitration. AFGE has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the agency in part over management's decision to bypass these steps, although EPA officials have insisted that they were right to implement the new contract unilaterally because of a nearly decade-long dispute over the previous agreement.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, led lawmakers in their criticism of EPA’s actions in a letter to Wheeler.

“This contract cuts telework and official time, and eliminates employees’ ability to challenge adverse actions through the union grievance process,” the Democrats wrote. “[These] are sensitive issues that should have been negotiated in the course of good-faith bargaining. The EPA’s actions appear to show a disregard for federal labor-management law.”

The senators demanded information about EPA’s reasoning for not going through the processes designed for settling union-agency disputes as part of the law governing federal labor-management relations. And they asked a number of questions relating to whether the White House or the Office of Management and Budget ever interfered in the negotiations.

“Did the White House, OMB, or any entity outside of EPA provide direction or guidance on the contract terms that EPA has imposed?” they asked. “[What] discretion did your negotiating team have to deviate from the seven-year contract term, the grievance proposal, or guidelines OMB or any other entity may have issued to EPA management?”

Questions from lawmakers regarding the White House’s role in agency collective bargaining negotiations have become more common in recent months, as more and more agencies have either implemented new contracts unilaterally or moved swiftly through the collective bargaining process, often declaring an impasse after only a few days of negotiations over contract terms.

Earlier this month, an arbitrator found that the Health and Human Services Department engaged in bad faith bargaining when it rushed to impasse over a union contract last year.

In a statement, an EPA spokesperson said the agency is within its rights to unilaterally implement the contract because the union "refused" to bargain "in writing."

"EPA has tried to get AFGE to the negotiating table on the full contract, and it refused in writing," the spokesperson said. "So over two years into this administration on June 24, 2019, the agency provided the union notice that it intended to implement a new contract on July 8, 2019."

AFGE has maintained that it disagreed with a specific ground rules proposal regarding how much of the existing contract is under negotiation, which does not equate to an outright refusal to bargain.