Trump Ed Secretary DeVos trashes her own workers’ union, imposes “contract”
Jacquelyn Martin / AP

WASHINGTON—Trump administration Education Secretary Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos, a GOP big-giver known for her hatred of public schools, their teachers, and their unions in her home state of Michigan, has done it again. Now she’s trashing the union of her own agency’s workers by imposing a collective bargaining “agreement” which wipes out their protections, without their consent.

DeVos’s move was so high-handed that the American Federation of Government Employees’ (AFGE) Council of Education Department Locals had to file labor law-breaking—formally called unfair labor practices—charges against her on March 12 with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, the small agency equivalent of the National Labor Relations Board for federal workers, their unions, and their agencies.

DeVos’s contract is in line with Trump’s overall attack on the nation’s 2.1 million federal workers, union and non-union.  Other Trump schemes include a pay freeze, huge downsizing, and demands for easier firing and a virtual return to the “spoils system” that existed before the 20th century.

DeVos, part of a family that gained its riches from the Amway direct-selling almost-Ponzi scheme, used the money to rise within the ranks of the Michigan GOP, eventually chairing it. She also used her cash to fund anti-worker, anti-teacher, and anti-public school initiatives in the Wolverine State.

These included attempts to eliminate teacher tenure, to impose charter schools, and to enact taxpayer-paid vouchers for parents of private school kids. As Education Secretary—even after a controversial confirmation—DeVos has led similar Trump administration efforts in the federal Education Department.

Not content with trashing teachers’ unions in Michigan, DeVos is now “trying to kill the union” for her own agency’s 3,900 member-workers, says Claudette Young, president of the Chicago-based Council of Education Department locals.

DeVos’ negotiators walked out of talks, which had been bitter from management’s side, on March 9. They declared the secretary would impose her “contract,” after the union—as federal law requires—put it to a vote four days before. It was overwhelmingly rejected.

Unlike private sector workers, federal workers and their unions are limited in bargaining and in protecting themselves. Pay usually follows the general federal pay schedules, and due process rights in firing and discipline can be curbed by administration fiat. The workers also lack the right to strike. And federal agencies are open, virtual “right to work” shops.

But the Trump administration and its GOP acolytes in Congress have been trying to gnaw away at even those limited civil service protections. The Defense Department is reviving a so-called “merit pay” system for civilian workers, a tactic last tried under the George W. Bush administration until Congress dumped it amidst charges of favoritism and racial discrimination.

And Congress made firings easier at the Veterans Affairs Department. Trump now wants to extend that to all federal workers. DeVos’ tactics are right in line with those other Trump initiatives.

“The so-called ‘collective bargaining agreement’ referred to by management is an illegal management edict that guts employee rights, including those addressing workplace health and safety, telework, and alternative work schedules,” the union, AFGE Council 252, said.

“The Education Department has imposed on its workers an illegal document we had absolutely no bargaining over,” Council 252 President Bernadette Young said. “Secretary DeVos and her management team are attempting to strip employees of their collective bargaining rights and kill the union.”

DeVos’ seven-year “contract” imposes several changes that workers find unacceptable.

According to Young, “Provisions addressing workplace discrimination, performance appraisals, telework, workers’ comp, child care, overtime, and employee training have all been deleted and replaced with nothing.”

One provision forces each worker to file paperwork every year to continue to be represented by the union. That’s similar to provisions imposed on state workers by right-wing GOP Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, among others.

The “contract” also severely slams AFGE’s right to represent workers when bosses want to discipline or fire them, and even cuts into time for handling routine contract administration, such as grievances. The council’s former contract allowed the union to have 75 shop stewards represent workers, along with the officers of each of its 10 locals and the national officers. And they were paid for their time, if approved in advance.

DeVos’s “contract” allows just ten reps and says they have to advocate for workers on their own time and their own dime. Right-wing congressional Republicans have also repeatedly attacked paid “lost time” for federal union reps to undertake their duties.

“DeVos’s new edict requires shop stewards and local union officers to use leave without pay to carry out their statutory representational duties,” the council says. They include “resolving workplace disputes, preventing and countering bosses’ retaliation and discrimination, and working with managers to improve efficiency,” the union says.

The Council now has offices within Education Department buildings in the agency’s ten regions, plus one at headquarters in D.C. DeVos’s “contract” dumps the regional offices and restricts the national headquarters office to one 200-square-foot space—a little larger than a broom closet. DeVos is also ordering the union to turn in its assigned computers and cell phones and deleting the ten union locals’ e-mail address lists.

“This edict”—DeVos’s “contract”—“is counterproductive and wrong. It’s bad for public employees, and it’s bad for public education,” Young said.

“AFGE did not agree to these unilateral terms. AFGE is, and has been, eager to return to the table to negotiate a fair and just contract, which all employees deserve.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.