BLM employees unionize amid change, uncertainty

By Scott Streater | 10/07/2022 01:28 PM EDT

Bureau of Land Management sign.

Bureau of Land Management employees are unionizing. Francis Chung/E&E News

Hundreds of Bureau of Land Management staffers have voted to join the National Treasury Employees Union, partly in response to the Trump-era relocation of the bureau’s Washington headquarters and the movement of hundreds of D.C. jobs to the West.

The decisions by about 200 non-supervisory headquarters employees in May, and another roughly 200 in the New Mexico state office in February and in the Taos and Rio Puerco field offices there last spring, were also spurred by the Biden administration’s efforts to undo the Trump BLM reorganization.

They likely will not be the last bureau employees to join the union, NTEU President Tony Reardon said.

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“We continue to hear from a lot of BLM employees, not only in New Mexico, but really in states throughout the Western part of the country,” he said. “And so we are right now in the process of determining what the level of interest in those various locations are.”

The Interior Department’s decision three years ago to reorganize BLM and to relocate its Washington headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo., and other state offices in the West was pitched to employees and the public as a move to improve bureau operations by placing senior officials closer to the lands they manage.

But it was done with little consultation with BLM “employees and key stakeholders,” according to the Government Accountability Office (Greenwire, March 6, 2020).

At least 135 mostly senior-level staffers left BLM rather than move, according to a follow-up GAO report last year (Greenwire, Nov. 18, 2021).

The decision by employees in Washington and New Mexico to join NTEU should improve protection for the bureau’s rank-and-file employees in the event of another reorganization, said Lauren Leib, a BLM land law examiner in the New Mexico state office and the interim vice president of the NTEU chapter there.

“By bargaining with management as equals, we are changing our workplace for the better,” she said.

Leib said she anticipates more field offices in New Mexico will join the union.

“When we started our union organizing campaign at the New Mexico State Office, our vision always included the rest of the state,” Leib said. “We know the power of unions and what employees can achieve through collective bargaining.”

She said many of the issues that employees in New Mexico have dealt with are the same across the bureau, such as “high turnover rates, employee burnout, and management not holding bad supervisors accountable.”

They have the support of BLM’s leadership.

In a brief emailed statement, BLM said it “recognizes the union’s right to organize and seek to represent eligible employees,” and that the bureau looks forward “to working with the union in the coming years on behalf of a strong, diverse and effective workforce.”

The agency also pointed to Biden’s Executive Order 14025, issued last year, which established a task force chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris to “identify executive branch policies, practices, and programs that could be used” to promote the Biden administration’s “support for worker power, worker organizing, and collective bargaining.”

BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning expressed support for employees unionizing on Thursday during an all-staff “town hall” meeting. “I welcome them,” she said. E&E News listened to the meeting.

She also told staffers at a BLM Oregon-Washington town hall meeting in August: “My goal is to make it as good of a relationship as possible.”

BLM and the union are expected to soon begin negotiating a collective bargaining agreement, which she said she would leave to career employees.

“It’s not that I’m not really supportive of what’s happening here; it’s because the relationships with the union have to be created with career employees and career leadership, because I’m going to go,” she said at the Oregon-Washington town hall. “You can’t put all your chips on the director’s spot, because the director comes and goes, but career leadership stays.”

The BLM employees who joined NTEU are focused on the long term, Reardon said.

“I think there’s no question they love the agency and they love their jobs, but they ultimately really wanted a stronger voice in the workplace,” he said. “They wanted management to respect and value their input in agency operations. And candidly, they don’t feel like that has occurred.”

Collectively, the roughly 400 employees in the union to date represent a fraction of the roughly 10,000 total BLM employees who oversee 245 million acres of public land.

But it has already affected the plan Stone-Manning outlined last month to move most of the national headquarters’ senior staffers dispersed across the West back to Washington. Her plan proposes a phased-in approach to relocating many staffers back to Washington by September 2023 (Greenwire, Sept. 8).

Most of the 200 employees in the headquarters union chapter — about 150 total — are presently stationed outside of Washington, D.C., in state offices across the West.

The deadlines to move back to Washington, and the processes for deciding which headquarters employees can stay out West and work remotely, are matters that BLM must first negotiate with the union, Reardon said.

He confirmed that the union has asked BLM to negotiate the timelines and other requirements in that plan.

“Here’s the bottom line: The agency should have talked to us about it before making that announcement,” Reardon said. “And they should have given employees a chance to address any concerns they have about the changes.”

Reardon said the union’s goal is not to slow down implementation of the plan to move back, as ordered by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last year (E&E News PM, Sept. 17, 2021).

“Bargaining on something like this does not on its face necessarily mean that there has to be a delay,” he said. “Bargaining is a standard procedure on things like this, and it can certainly be done collaboratively.”

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