Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency have agreed to a second attempt at reaching a collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of Government Employees, after union leaders accused their previous attempt as consisting of “unfair labor practices.”

AFGE filed a complaint against the agency with the Federal Labor Relations Authority in June, after the agency decided to unilaterally impose a collective bargaining agreement after nearly a decade of negotiation challenges.

According to the union, EPA forced its employees to be bound by an agreement that limits their telework time and evicts the union from agency offices without adequately trying to negotiate that contract.

But the agency has argued that it was the union that acted in bad faith by repeatedly prolonging the negotiation process.

Many members of Congress took the union’s side of the argument, with 41 senators and 228 representatives writing letters to EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler to encourage him to return to the bargaining table.

“Thanks to the activism of our members and support from so many lawmakers, we have forced EPA back to the table to negotiate a new contract,” AFGE National Secretary-Treasurer Everett Kelley said in a news release.

“This is a major breakthrough, but we must not become complacent. We are fighting uphill against an administration that wants to strip workers of their rights and make it harder for employees to do their jobs. We must keep up the pressure on EPA management to ensure they stick to the agreement and bargain with us in good faith on a new contract that adheres to the law and equips employees with the resources and support needed to carry out their vital mission.”

The conflict between AFGE and the EPA is just one of several collective bargaining clashes that have occurred across the federal government, as agencies attempt to implement requirements laid forth in three May 2018 executive orders that call for significant cuts to official time, the removal of unions from agency offices and more control over employee flexibilities like telework.

Union lawsuits challenging those orders were struck down in appeals court, though that ruling only determined that the courts were the wrong place to begin hearing such disputes and not that the union’s argument — that the orders violate Congress’s intent in civil service law — is inherently invalid.

Unions therefore have the option to bring their disputes with the enactment of such orders through the FLRA first.

In the case with the EPA, the FLRA’s Chicago office notified the union and agency that it had found merit with AFGE’s unfair labor practice charge, prompting EPA to agree to return to the bargaining table within 30 days if the union rescinded its charge.

“The July contract will remain in effect until a new agreement is reached. The parties have committed to conclude negotiations by April 15, 2020, and if necessary, work with the Federal Service Impasses Panel to address any impasses,” Wheeler wrote in an email to EPA employees.

“The agency remains dedicated to bargaining in good faith with its unions, and looks forward to sitting down with AFGE in the coming weeks and months to complete negotiations in a timely manner, to benefit our employees and the American public.”

Jessie Bur covered the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees for Federal Times.

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