Fight Over Safe Reopening Is The Latest Front in “Civil War” at the EPA

Hamilton Nolan

Trump’s EPA is trying to force scientists back to the office. They have no reason to believe it’s safe. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Just like pri­vate busi­ness­es across Amer­i­ca, fed­er­al gov­ern­ment agen­cies are plot­ting how to get their employ­ees back into their offices. The Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency sent an email to all of its employ­ees late last week telling them it’s set to begin reopen­ing offices in sev­er­al regions. One prob­lem: the biggest union of EPA employ­ees says the gov­ern­ment hasn’t spo­ken to them about it, and that they have no rea­son to believe the plan to reopen is safe.

Andrew Wheel­er, the admin­is­tra­tor of the EPA, wrote that offices in Atlanta, Seat­tle and Lenexa, Kansas are ready to pro­ceed to Phase 1” sta­tus, imply­ing the begin­ning of the end of work­ing at home and the expec­ta­tion that employ­ees will start the three-phase process of mov­ing back into the office. In response, the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees Coun­cil 238 — which rep­re­sents more than 7,500 EPA work­ers — sent a let­ter to the agency express­ing utter sur­prise” at the announce­ment, say­ing we see no data or oth­er analy­sis to sup­port [the asser­tion that those regions have met the safe­ty cri­te­ria to reopen], and we have had no par­tic­i­pa­tion in the dis­cus­sion of whether any EPA offices meet the gat­ing cri­te­ria.” The union also said the EPA has not bar­gained or dis­cussed with them the process for send­ing employ­ees back to work. 

Gary Mor­ton, the pres­i­dent of AFGE 238 and a for­mer EPA employ­ee, says that the root of the prob­lem is the com­plete fail­ure of the agency to include the union in its deci­sion-mak­ing process, or even to share infor­ma­tion. (Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly, he says, the EPA has not respond­ed to the union’s let­ter.) There has not been a dis­cus­sion of what hap­pens if an employ­ee goes back to work and tests pos­i­tive. There are no pro­to­cols,” Mor­ton says.

At least 40 EPA employ­ees have test­ed pos­i­tive for coro­n­avirus, and Mor­ton per­son­al­ly knows one who has died. The absur­di­ty of with­hold­ing infor­ma­tion from the work­force is par­tic­u­lar­ly high in this case: We’re sci­en­tists. EPA is full of sci­en­tists. We just want transparency.”

The larg­er con­text for the cur­rent argu­ment is the Trump administration’s deter­mi­na­tion to side­line and dis­em­pow­er fed­er­al unions in any way pos­si­ble. The admin­is­tra­tion has issued a series of mem­os designed to restrict the pow­er of unions at fed­er­al agen­cies, includ­ing lim­it­ing what they can bar­gain over and cut­ting back on the time and resources that employ­ees are grant­ed for union busi­ness. Though some of those rules are still tied up in court chal­lenges, the effect has not been lim­it­ed to legal restric­tions — the entire pos­ture of the admin­is­tra­tion has been hos­tile to pub­lic unions. Now, those unions see lit­tle rea­son to believe that the agen­cies have their best inter­ests at heart in the reopen­ing process. 

This admin­is­tra­tion has not been friend­ly to fed­er­al employ­ees. So why should we trust them, when they’ve done every­thing in their pow­er to cre­ate a hos­tile work envi­ron­ment over the past four years?” Mor­ton says. More than per­haps any oth­er fed­er­al agency, employ­ees at the EPA under the Trump admin­is­tra­tion have faced a dual assault on both their union pow­er, and on the under­ly­ing pow­er of the agency itself, which is seen as a job-killing bureau­cra­cy by many right-wing busi­ness advo­cates who make up Trump’s base. Mor­ton sees the anti-union pos­ture as part of a strat­e­gy to make work so unpleas­ant that long­time employ­ees will leave the EPA for good. 

It’s a civ­il war at the EPA, between the polit­i­cal appointees and the career, senior EPA employ­ees,” he says. “[The Trump admin­is­tra­tion] put these peo­ple in there who do not care about the work­ers, don’t care about the envi­ron­ment, don’t care about pub­lic health, only care about eco­nom­ics and politics.” 

An EPA spokesper­son says: The unions will con­tin­ue to be reg­u­lar­ly informed as the agency moves through its rolling reopen­ing; how­ev­er the Admin­is­tra­tor talks direct­ly to the employ­ees and does not need to speak through the unions. The agency will ful­fill any bar­gain­ing oblig­a­tions required by law.” 

With the law tilt­ed against them, and no plans for any con­cert­ed labor action, there is lit­tle rea­son to think that the union will win this fight. Mor­ton says the union does not tell employ­ees not to fol­low orders; rather, it tells them to fol­low orders and file a griev­ance lat­er. For at least the past four years, that strat­e­gy does not have a win­ning record. 

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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