Written by Evin Bachelor, Law Fellow, OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program
When you don’t want to move, you don’t want to move. That’s the message being sent to Secretary Perdue and the leadership of the USDA by employees of the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS), who recently voted to unionize 138 to 4.
ERS produces research on agriculture and rural economies that is used by policymakers in determining where to prioritize federal money, personnel, and attention. Many universities and agricultural organizations also utilize the data in their own research. Economists and statisticians make up a large portion of ERS’s staff.
The vote comes after months of tension over the fate of ERS. USDA leaders have been seriously discussing moving the headquarters of ERS closer to the farms and rural areas that it is charged with researching, and away from D.C. Recently the USDA announced that locations in Indiana near Purdue University, in Kansas City, and in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Region have been selected as potential relocation sites. However, many ERS staffers have been vocal about not wanting to move away from D.C., either for personal reasons or to protect the prestige of the office within the USDA.
Further, Secretary Perdue had announced plans last year to place the service directly under the USDA’s chief economist, which would put ERS more directly under the watch of administrators appointed by President Trump. Some staffers have expressed concerns that such a move could increase the pressure to analyze data in a particular way, and reduce the service’s independence.
According to news interviews, as conversations among the higher level administrators became more serious, many ERS employees felt that they did not have much say in the matter. This sense of helplessness triggered many employees to want to unionize, while some employees have already left in pursuit of other jobs.
The right of most federal employees to unionize is protected under federal law, but the preliminary vote was not the final stop in the process. The vote to unionize had to be reviewed by the National Labor Relations Authority, which governs public-sector labor relations. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has already begun to represent the roughly 200 workers at ERS. AFGE represents approximately 700,000 employees of the federal government and of the District of Columbia, with just under half of those members paying dues. AFGE is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which is the nation’s largest federation of labor unions.
The formation of a union does not mean that ERS employees will be able to prevent the changes being proposed at the administrative level. However, it increases the likelihood that ERS employees have a seat at the decision table as a united group. This desire to have a united front and collectively bargain is one of the traditional purposes of forming a union.