WASHINGTON—The Trump administration has declared war on Environmental Protection Agency workers, says the head of the union representing some 7,000 of them.
“In my 37 years of federal experience, I’ve never seen such an unprecedented attack on federal workers,” says Gary Morton, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 238. “It’s a systematic plan to eliminate EPA or dilute it until it’s ineffective.”
The fronts in this war are both the agency’s work and its workers, Morton says. EPA workers can no longer do research on climate change, and interference by political appointees has drastically increased. Meanwhile, the number of employees has fallen from 18,000 during the Obama administration to below 13,000, and, as at other federal agencies, management has tried to impose rules that weaken the union and make it easier to fire workers.
Last July, EPA management unilaterally imposed a seven-year contract that barred workers from filing grievances about disciplinary actions and evicted union representatives from agency office space. Council 238 had refused to discuss reopening some clauses in the contract.
“They just threw the contract out because they couldn’t do what they wanted to do legally,” says Morton. He accuses the administration of creating a “hostile work environment so the most knowledgeable employees will leave.”
In October, after Council 238 filed two unfair-labor-practice allegations, a Federal Labor Relations Authority investigator held that EPA management had violated federal labor law. The problem, says AFGE deputy general counsel Cathie McQuiston, is that there was no way to prosecute that ruling, because the FLRA general-counsel position is vacant.
“There’s no remedy for us there,” she says. In December, the union and the EPA agreed to resume talks.
On Jan. 7, the day the talks began, AFGE announced a 10-point “Bill of Rights” for EPA workers. They included the rights to scientific integrity in EPA work; to enforce environmental laws without political interference; to a fair contract that is collectively bargained; full staffing levels; an end of lockouts caused by U.S. government shutdowns; and “the right to work on control of greenhouse gasses, to discuss solutions to climate change, and to conduct climate change research.”
That platform is about “the principles we’re trying to uphold in the language of contract,” says McQuiston. The first two weeks of talks covered relatively noncontroversial topics, but when they resume next week, “we’re going to have to delve into more difficult issues.”
Negotiating with federal agencies is now “very challenging,” she continues, because they are taking their cues from the “union-busting” Trump administration. Workers at the Department of Education are still under a contract unilaterally imposed in May 2018 that’s even worse, she adds.
The EPA did not answer specific questions about the contract or research on climate change. “EPA has established, and continues to promote, a culture of scientific integrity for all of its employees. This policy provides a framework intended to ensure scientific integrity throughout the EPA and promote scientific and ethical standards. The policy allows for perceived misconduct to be reported for investigation,” a spokesperson said in an email to LaborPress. “Additionally, EPA and AFGE are continuing to bargain and will be negotiating a number of articles, which include both Employee’s rights and Union’s rights.”
The message referred to scientific-integrity standards posted online that appear to date from the Obama administration. Under Trump, the EPA has deleted much content from its Website, with more than 400 press releases referring to climate change moved to a separate archive site. Of more than 4,200 press releases the agency has issued under Trump, only 57 include the phrase “climate change”—and many of those are justifying the administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate-change agreement, or are full-bore “fake news” attacks on media reports critical of its policies.
“The whole idea is to kill the union,” McQuiston says. “The unions are the only obstacle they have to a much larger agenda.”
That agenda includes privatization—particularly at the Veterans Administration—and weakening government accountability, she explains. Without the protection of a union, it would become very easy to retaliate against whistleblowers or critics of a policy.
McQuiston believes that intentional attrition is a way of undermining environmental regulations. AFGE’s bargaining unit at the EPA had almost 9,000 members at the end of the Obama administration. Last summer, when the contract was imposed, it had about 7,500.
“You don’t have to change the law, because there’s no one there to enforce it,” she says.
Morton, who worked for the EPA’s Philadelphia office for 14 years before he retired last summer, says that before Trump, section heads could send letters to a facility to notify them about a violation or enforcement action, but now, the regional administrator has to approve any such action or message.
In his specialty, inspecting gas, oil, and waste tanks, he says the administration is no longer enforcing regulations requiring precautions to prevent and detect leaks. “We’ve inspected facilities that did not have the equipment to detect leaks,” he says. “They’ve been very lenient against companies that have not polluted, but have willfully not met release-detection standards.”
If the Trump administration is intentionally diluting regulations intended to minimize the risk of a tank leaking 40,000 gallons of gas, he asks, why would a company comply with those rules?
“We want to do our jobs to protect human health and the environment,” Morton says. “We need the public to put pressure on the administration, so we can protect them.”