Inside a BLM union’s ‘challenging’ negotiations

By Scott Streater | 05/30/2024 01:20 PM EDT

Bureau of Land Management headquarters’ employees voted to unionize in 2022. They’re still working on a collective bargaining agreement with the agency.

Photo collage of Bureau of Land Management logo and hands raised with fists

Illustration by Claudine Hellmuth/POLITICO (source images via iStock and Brands of the World)

More than two years after 200 Bureau of Land Management headquarters office staffers voted to unionize, leaders of the effort say the agency is dragging out the process of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement.

They’ve expressed frustrations about long gaps between bargaining sessions and BLM’s insistence that different bureau offices negotiate separate agreements. Panchita Paulete, a key union leader, said BLM also refused to give nonsupervisory employees an interim agreement that covers issues like arbitration of grievances during the bargaining process. At the same time, Paulete said the bureau isn’t following a recently negotiated remote work policy.

Paulete, president of the National Treasury Employees Union chapter representing headquarters employees, said the agency’s actions are at odds with BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning’s public support for the union and an office that has seen an unusual amount of turmoil in recent years. Delays in finalizing an agreement have also appeared to complicate one of Stone-Manning’s top priorities: moving headquarters employees and positions back to Washington to reverse the Trump administration’s 2019 move to disperse them to offices across the West.


“It’s been really difficult and challenging,” said Paulete, a senior land-use planner in the headquarters office.

BLM defends its actions, saying in a statement that it has followed “applicable law” in regards to its dealings with the union, and “will continue to meet for purposes of consulting and bargaining in a good-faith effort to reach an agreement with respect to various issues.”

Union officials are keenly aware of the deadline imposed by the upcoming presidential election, saying they are anxious to work out a collective bargaining agreement while President Joe Biden is in office, given his support of federal government unions. Biden’s likely Republican opponent, former President Donald Trump, took steps to curb those unions’ power, and has suggested he’d remove civil service protections for thousands of employees if elected in November.

“We would certainly prefer to be finishing bargaining under a pro-union administration,” Paulete said.

But Paulete also maintains the reality of the negotiations has differed sharply from discussions she had with Stone-Manning shortly after employees voted to join NTEU in 2022.

“Conversations that I had with her, especially early on, she talked about how she basically wanted to work with us to make sure we could have a durable union,” Paulete said.

Stone-Manning also made those statements publicly. During a 2022 bureau all-staff “town hall” meeting, Stone-Manning expressed support for the unionization effort. “I welcome them,” she said.

But Paulete said Stone-Manning “unilaterally refused” to sign off on an interim agreement with the headquarters union Chapter 341. Such an agreement is essentially a temporary memorandum of understanding that covers the key topics that are ultimately negotiated in a collective bargaining agreement.

“The reasoning she provided for why she wouldn’t give us one was that she just wanted to get into bargaining, that was super important, and it needed to be done first,” Paulete said.

John Logan, professor and director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, said there’s no obvious reason for BLM’s refusal to grant headquarters employees an interim agreement that includes third-party arbitration to resolve disputes between leadership and staff while the collective bargaining agreement is negotiated.

He also called it “highly unusual” that Mike Nedd, a BLM deputy director, would lead negotiations for the bureau, because the scope of his responsibilities are already so demanding. Until March, when BLM split the deputy director of operations into two positions, Nedd oversaw the agency’s nearly 10,000 employees, and Paulete said his packed schedule has made arranging bargaining sessions difficult.

Nedd is now deputy director of programs and administration, which oversees BLM’s headquarters offices, including the development of the bureau’s annual budget request, Office of Law Enforcement and Security, and Fire and Aviation Department.

“Deliberate delaying of bargaining sessions is often viewed as a classic anti-union tactic,” Logan said.

But Logan said it’s not clear that BLM is engaged in “bad-faith bargaining” with the union. Rather, he said, “in this case, it seems more a question of disorganization and mismanagement.”

NTEU National President Doreen Greenwald told POLITICO’s E&E News in a statement that the union remains confident “we will reach an agreement that gives dedicated BLM employees a strong contract and greater voice in their workplace.”

The union and BLM leadership have agreed to dates for bargaining sessions, with the goal of reaching an agreement by the end of September.

But Greenwald conceded the “timeline for bargaining an agreement for Chapter 341 has been particularly frustrating as negotiations continue to drag out.”

The plan to bring staff back

The union contract negotiations include bargaining on how to bring back dozens of headquarters positions to Washington, which Stone-Manning had wanted to get done by September 2023.

Stone-Manning in August 2022 outlined her plan for returning positions and workers — without mention of the union. But the union quickly spoke up that it expected to be included in those decisions.

“Technically, she was supposed to have bargained with us before she sent that email,” Paulete said of Stone-Manning. Since late 2022, the bureau has submitted to the union three proposed plans to move employees back to Washington.

The first proposal, submitted in December 2022, called for moving fewer than half of roughly 400 headquarters positions back to Washington, and 11 percent to the office in Grand Junction, Colorado, that the Trump administration planned to make the new national headquarters. The rest — about 40 percent — would remain in various other state offices where they had been reassigned, Paulete said.

BLM management and the union negotiated this proposal, and by March 2023 both sides had worked out a tentative agreement on all but one matter to be able to get to the bargaining table, Paulete said.

Then, radio silence, she said.

“We kept asking, ‘Can we meet to wrap this up? Do you have any further questions?’ And they stopped engaging with us,” she added.

That is, until December 2023, when BLM submitted to the union a revised proposal that called for a substantially larger portion of positions — 83 percent — returning to Washington, and 13 percent to Grand Junction, Colorado, with only 4 percent of the headquarters positions staying out West, Paulete said.

But the union questioned that proposal, Paulete said.

While only 41 employees actually moved as part of the Trump administration reorganization, the plan also included relocating roughly 300 or so Washington-based positions, many vacant at the time, to state offices across the West. Some of those positions were subsequently filled with new employees.

While most of the senior staffers forced to state offices have long ago returned to Washington, there are still more than 100 nonsupervisory and support staffers that have not, Paulete said, noting that some people don’t want to move to Washington.

The bureau in February submitted a third relocation proposal that would have almost all headquarters staffers in Washington, but none would be management-directed reassignments for unionized employees, Paulete said.

Headquarters employees who were moved out West during Trump’s administration would potentially have the option to telework from their current locations, or work remotely, she said.

Those are potential game changers, Paulete said, while noting that the situation remains “unclear,” including “terms of relocation packages and incentives for enticing volunteers to move, and for terms for remote work and working out of different [Department of the Interior]/BLM duty stations.”

BLM declined to provide details on the number of headquarters employees currently working in Washington, and how many headquarters positions transferred by the Trump administration are still occupied by staffers in the Western state offices.

The union, citing BLM data it was provided by the agency, says that of the 305 headquarters staff positions, 229 are nonsupervisory and represented by the union.

BLM said in a separate statement that the bureau “is making progress in rebuilding our Washington, D.C. headquarters and filling positions across all program areas.”

The bureau says that since Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, it has “reduced the D.C. vacancy rate from nearly 30 percent to around 24 percent today. We remain steadfast in our commitment to fill positions while diversifying our workforce to better represent the American public we serve.”

A ‘different experience’

Other BLM employees looking to unionize in different locations say their experiences have been largely positive.

But BLM has insisted that the different offices — so far state office union locals and the separate headquarters chapter — will have to each negotiate their own collective bargaining agreements, instead of one that would cover all bureau staffers that vote to unionize.

BLM New Mexico is currently negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with about 200 nonsupervisory employees in the New Mexico state office, as well as the Taos and Rio Puerco field offices.

BLM employees in Oregon, which had unionized in the 1980s as a chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, last year voted to move to the NTEU as a new chapter. They, too, have been told they will have to negotiate a separate collective bargaining agreement.

BLM has already told the headquarters union that new NTEU chapters expected in Alaska and the Eastern states offices, as well as Colorado, will also have to negotiate separate contracts.

Paulete said that Stone-Manning told the union that “she wanted to allow states to have their autonomy.”

Greenwald, the NTEU national president, said “it was always our intent to negotiate a single collective bargaining agreement to cover employees in different parts of the country, similar to our contracts at many other federal agencies. Unfortunately, BLM management insisted on separate agreements for each office resulting in differing timetables for negotiations.”

In New Mexico, negotiations between union organizers and BLM have been largely smooth, a union representative said.

The bureau’s New Mexico office is handling the negotiation with roughly 200 employees who have organized as Chapter 340. BLM officials have approved an interim agreement, authorized a binding arbitration agreement and met regularly with union representatives. A deal is expected to be finalized by the end of the year, said Lauren Leib, a BLM fluid mineral land law examiner and president of Chapter 340.

“We’ve had a different experience. It’s been much more productive,” Leib said. “There’s been good-faith bargaining.”

Remote work policy

Meanwhile, a key point of contention for the headquarters negotiations has been the bureau’s evolving remote work policy. This was one of the first items negotiated by the union and BLM.

But even the consensus on this issue, negotiated last year, hasn’t worked out the way the union thought it would, Paulete said.

Remote work has been a contentious issue across the federal workforce, with both the White House and congressional Republicans urging federal employees who started working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic to return to their offices.

The BLM remote work policy was agreed to by the union and bureau leadership in September 2023.

The policy, which Paulete said BLM agreed to implement, allows for employees to work from home unless the bureau cites a “business need” for the employee to work from the office.

BLM declined to discuss specifics associated with the ongoing negotiations.

But Paulete said BLM has not been “honoring” the agreement, rejecting remote work requests and citing business needs that probably would not stand up in front of an arbitrator.

“The terms that we negotiated made it very clear that there are clear, nonsubjective criteria to consider” when evaluating a remote work request, “rather than the department policy they had been following that has a lot of subjective consideration points for it,” she said. “The agreement says that management will need to follow this, and they’re not.”