EPA enters high-stakes mediation with union

By Kevin Bogardus | 12/05/2023 01:27 PM EST

A contract could serve as a bulwark for thousands of staff if a Republican administration takes charge in 2025 and tries to tear down the agency.


A pin is worn by an AFGE union member during a rally outside agency headquarters in Washington on Feb. 15. Francis Chung/POLITICO

EPA and its largest union entered mediation Monday to hammer out a contract that could cement protections for agency staff long after President Joe Biden leaves office.

American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents about 8,000 EPA employees, has pushed for provisions to promote diversity and champion scientific integrity in its collective bargaining agreement with the agency. Those articles and others are now under mediation, an expedited process intended to reach resolution between the two sides.

The stakes could not be higher for the EPA union. Its next contract will carry past the next presidential election and could serve as a bulwark for thousands of staff if a Republican administration takes charge and tries to tear down the agency.


“We’re putting pressure on the agency to finally agree to our demands during this mediation process, especially on items like equal treatment regardless of race, gender expression or sexual orientation and scientific integrity so we can get our work done to protect human health and the environment,” said AFGE Council 238 President Marie Owens Powell in a statement.

Powell added, “As we enter into an election year, we need to ensure our ability to protect human health and the environment is preserved no matter who is in power.”

“The EPA is committed to maintaining a transparent and cooperative relationship with our union partners,” EPA spokesperson Remmington Belford told E&E News. “The agency will continue engaging with union partners on open articles.”

Joyce Howell, executive vice president for the council, told E&E News that starting Monday, the union entered into mediation with EPA over 11 of the contract’s articles. Those include provisions dealing with scientific integrity and diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility as well as the agreement’s career ladder and discipline process.

“The union proposed inclusion of a DEIA article in our contract because we know that EPA employees deserve established policies that protect their equal rights, and the union wants a role in ensuring that the agency follows through on these commitments,” Howell, also the union’s chief negotiator, said in a statement.

“This is of great interest for the EPA employees who work so hard to protect human health and the environment. Their eyes are upon us,” Howell said.

Time is now running short. If EPA and AFGE cannot reach agreement after two weeks of mediation, unresolved articles will go to the Federal Service Impasses Panel, according to the union.

To keep the pressure on agency leadership, the union released a petition signed by nearly a thousand of its members calling on EPA to agree to AFGE’s demands. The union has already received support from lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have called on the agency to bargain in good faith, including over the diversity article.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has sought to promote diversity in the federal workforce. EPA has been part of that effort, which has included hiring the agency’s first senior adviser for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility and standing up its own diversity office.

The two sides have struggled to reach agreement on some parts of the contract but have made progress in other areas. The council also announced Monday the ratification of 14 articles in the agreement, including those involving leave and overtime pay.

Contract talks began over a year ago in June 2022, with the union setting ambitious plans to expand protections for EPA employees. AFGE also has wanted to wrap up negotiations before the 2024 election so those protections are in place if there is a change of administration.

Howell said the union expects its next contract will be done before the coming presidential election.