The Department of Health and Human Services has been ordered to return to the negotiating table with the National Treasury Employees Union, after a third-party arbiter ruled that the agency had bargained in bad faith and unfairly imposed a new collective bargaining contract on its employees.

Disagreement between the agency and its union dates back to July 2015, when the collective bargaining agreement between the two was reopened for negotiation. HHS and NTEU were unable to agree on ground rules for the negotiations, and HHS disagreed with a Federal Service Impasse Panel decision on the ground rules.

In May 2018, HHS decided to resume negotiations under the FSIP ground rules, but NTEU brought unfair labor practice charges against the agency for unilaterally imposing ground rules for negotiations.

Negotiations on the substance of the bargaining agreement began July 9, 2018, and though the agency brought in a Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service mediator after two days of bargaining, HHS negotiators turned the case over to the Federal Service Impasse Panel for decision.

According to the union’s grievance, the agency acted in bad faith by calling on a mediator after only two days of negotiations and then again by turning over the case to the FSIP after only another two days.

The arbitrator, Robert Creo, delivered his decision on the case Aug. 3, ruling in favor of the union.

“HHS management cannot run roughshod over its own workforce and expect to get away with it,” NTEU National President Tony Reardon said, in a statement.

“This decision is a strong repudiation of the shameful tactics that HHS negotiators used in their rush to disenfranchise HHS frontline workers, gut their contract and strip them of their rights and benefits. This has been a long fight but now the administration is officially on notice that federal employees’ legal rights to bargain collectively will be protected, and sending anti-labor and anti-union political ideologues to the table is a bad idea. This is a strong message to any other agencies that are thinking about using similar tactics: don’t do it.”

Should the agency accept the arbitrator’s decision, it will have to return to negotiations with NTEU and the old collective bargaining agreement will be put back in place. The agency can also choose to appeal the decision, and the agreement imposed by FSIP will remain in place during the appeal process.

The case between HHS and NTEU represents just one of several disputes between federal agencies and their employee unions under the Trump administration, as three executive orders signed by President Donald Trump in early May have instructed agencies to negotiate stricter collective bargaining agreements.