A move to Grand Junction, Colorado, and back helped spark the unionization effort.

A move to Grand Junction, Colorado, and back helped spark the unionization effort. Ronda Kimbrow Photography / Getty Images

Bureau of Land Management Headquarters Employees Have Voted to Unionize

Spurred by a ping-ponging relocation, nearly 200 workers at the federal agency’s headquarters are unionizing under the National Treasury Employees Union.

Employees at the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters voted 116-20 last week to form a nearly 200-worker union, spurred by two announced relocations since 2019 and a desire to secure more funding and staff for the agency.

The vote to form a union, which will be affiliated with the National Treasury Employees Union, is actually the second attempt by the land management agency’s employees to organize the headquarters office. Zoe May Davidson, interim president of NTEU Chapter 340, which represents BLM’s New Mexico State Office and who was a key organizer during a temporary detail at headquarters, said there was an effort to unionize shortly after the Trump administration announced it was moving the agency to Grand Junction, Colorado, in 2019, but it fell through amidst a mass exodus of employees who declined to make the journey west.

“There was actually a unionization attempt within BLM in 2019, but because people were jumping ship and finding jobs elsewhere as quickly as they could, we couldn’t go to a vote because there just weren’t enough people left,” she said. “That initial effort at headquarters prompted us in New Mexico to go through unionization in 2020, and we won that vote in 2021, so headquarters’ move west really prompted both unions in New Mexico and at HQ.”

The Government Accountability Office reported last year that BLM saw 135 new headquarters vacancies after its relocation, and the number of open positions spiked by 169% immediately following the relocation deadline. And despite some efforts to backfill those positions, the number of employees on staff remained down by 18% last fall. Last fall, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced that BLM’s headquarters would return to the Washington, D.C., area.

Panchita Paulete, interim president of NTEU’s new union for BLM headquarters, said the ping-ponging relocation may have been the inciting incident for employees’ organization drive, but it was also a moment that crystalized the need for organized labor to deal with other issues facing the workforce.

“[The move west] certainly has been a spark, and I certainly think grassroots local efforts always have their sparks, but it was a spark that illuminated and ignited a lot of the bigger picture,” Paulete said. “BLM as an agency is one of the larger agencies that remains largely un-unionized, and there’s a lot that that brings with it. Our responsibilities and mission have grown, but budget and staffing hasn’t changed. Particularly with the headquarters group we have, with that move west there was also a lot of removal of positions from organizational charts, so even if we had all of our positions filled right now, our org chart still has us staffed at lower levels than we were previously, and that understaffing is affecting workloads, morale and quite honestly affecting a lot of us as employees.”

In the immediate term, Paulete outlined her desire to negotiate with management over how the agency goes about returning to the D.C. area, as well as new permanent remote work and telework policies, particularly in light of how well employees have performed during the COVID-19 pandemic. But she said she also wants to be a partner with the agency to meet new challenges—and to petition Congress for more funding.

“We want to make sure we have both the budget and the staffing so that we as an agency and as employees are able to manage these public lands that we are passionate about ourselves,” she said. “[The] administration’s budget request for fiscal 2023 would add additional funding for 700 new positions to be hired in the next fiscal year, which is similar to the number they put up for fiscal 2022, and that didn’t come through in the end. So we’re hoping through our abilities we now have working with legislative staff on Capitol Hill that we’ll be more successful.”

Paulete said that management largely honored the Biden administration’s guidance instructing agencies to adapt a more collaborative relationship with their labor unions, making the union election process relatively painless. She hopes that that cooperation will continue as they negotiate over their working conditions.

“In general, over the course of my federal career I’ve mostly been in unionized offices until I worked for BLM HQ, so I started one there,” she said. “But one of the places I worked at that was a unionized office, I was in a supervisory position, so I’ve seen both sides of it. The relationship and benefits that management can get from a union are certainly broad, and when managers can understand that and embrace it, we wind up making beneficial change for everyone involved, including our managers, who are just as stressed out and upset by the understaffing and lack of budget.”