BLM employees look to unionize ahead of move West

By Scott Streater | 01/22/2020 01:24 PM EST

The Bureau of Land Management's Washington employees are working to join a federal union. The agency’s D.C. offices are pictured.

The Bureau of Land Management's Washington employees are working to join a federal union. The agency’s D.C. offices are pictured. Francis Chung/E&E News

Staffers in the Bureau of Land Management’s Washington headquarters could soon join a national federal employees union as BLM moves swiftly to relocate hundreds of positions out West.

The National Treasury Employees Union has filed a formal petition with the Federal Labor Relations Authority to establish a collective bargaining unit of NTEU. It would comprise between 140 and 160 D.C.-based employees, most of whom were given reassignment notices in November as part of BLM’s ongoing relocation plan.

That plan, which the Interior Department says will place staffers closer to the lands they manage, involves moving as many as 40 employees to the new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo., and more than 200 other positions to state offices from Alaska to Arizona. A staff of about 61 employees would remain in Washington.


It’s not clear how unionizing staffers would affect the relocation plan. Sources have told E&E News that because the relocation effort has advanced so far — with a new office in Grand Junction under lease and some employees already agreeing to move — it may be too late for the union to negotiate contracts allowing employees to stay in the D.C. metropolitan area.

Still, at least 30% of the D.C.-based employees support the petition effort, according to the petition, which NTEU submitted last month to the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

NTEU initially approached employees about joining the union in September (Greenwire, Sept. 6, 2019).

The decision to file the election petition was made after union representatives met with individual employees last fall, according to NTEU.

"These conversations underscored the upheaval facing the civil servants at BLM headquarters regarding office relocations, as well as other workplace issues," NTEU National President Tony Reardon said in a statement.

The goal of forming a collective bargaining unit of the union, Reardon said, is to "represent frontline BLM employees" so they "have a voice in the workplace and a seat at the table when changes — like massive office relocations — are proposed."

BLM issued a brief emailed statement to E&E News confirming that it has received the petition and is "reviewing for appropriate agency response."

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has defended the relocation plan to congressional leaders and the public. And BLM acting chief William Perry Pendley has vowed to help employees, including securing a commitment by Interior to offer a one-time payment equivalent to 25% of base annual pay to employees who agree to relocate.

BLM has estimated it will cost $7.2 million to move roughly 150 employees to the new "duty stations" out West. The bureau says the relocation will be completed this year (E&E News PM, Jan. 15).

With reduced cost of living expenses and a lower cost to lease the new Grand Junction headquarters, BLM has estimated the move could save $123 million over 20 years.

But it’s not clear how many D.C.-based employees will move. BLM has yet to release any numbers to the public detailing how many employees are leaving the bureau, and how many are moving West.

Pendley told employees in an email last month that "nearly two-thirds" have "indicated they will relocate with their positions" (E&E News PM, Dec. 20, 2019). Numerous sources, including some current BLM employees, have told E&E News that as many as 80% will not relocate and instead will leave the bureau.

A lengthy process

The union process is still in the beginning stages. It could be weeks before employees have the opportunity to vote on whether to form a collective bargaining unit of NTEU.

BLM and NTEU are still determining which employees would qualify for the union under federal labor laws.

NTEU says the collective bargaining unit would be composed of all "professional and non-professional employees assigned" to BLM’s headquarters.

BLM has until Jan. 31 to submit to the Federal Labor Relations Authority a list of "non-supervisory" employees who are eligible to be included in the union, said Joni Ketter, organizing director for NTEU, which represents 150,000 federal employees in 33 agencies and departments, including the National Park Service.

"Supervisors, management officials, confidential employees, security guards" do not qualify and would be "excluded" from the bargaining unit, according to the two-page petition, which is dated Dec. 12.

It’s not yet clear whether employees who have already moved to their new assignments in the West are eligible, nor is it known whether only employees slated to relocate can join.

If BLM and the union cannot agree on which employees should be included in the collective bargaining unit of the union, then a formal hearing on the issue will be held with the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

Once the eligible employees have been determined, those qualified staffers will have the opportunity to vote on a "secret ballot" measure whether to join the union, Ketter said. If 50% plus one vote to join the union, the new NTEU unit will be formally established.

At that point, a trained union negotiator and a "bargaining team" of staffers elected by employees could negotiate a contract with BLM outlining the specific terms of their employment, Ketter said.

"Like federal employees across government, BLM employees are committed to the mission of their agency and concerned about its future," Reardon said in his statement. "NTEU stands ready to assist these dedicated civil servants as they consider the potential for organizing as a collective bargaining unit."