An awards ceremony at EPA headquarters was briefly disrupted yesterday by a protest from one of the agency's own over its new union contract.
Loreen Targos, a steward with American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents EPA Region 5 employees, unfurled a banner while on stage with Administrator Andrew Wheeler. She asked Wheeler to "please support a fair contract for EPA workers," which was greeted by applause. She then walked off stage, according to a video shared on social media by the union.
Targos, also an EPA scientist who works in the agency's Chicago office, told E&E News in a phone interview yesterday after her protest that she had to speak out against the contract being implemented beginning this week.
"It was unconscionable for me to accept this award knowing that those working conditions that allowed this great work to be done have now been unilaterally revoked by this administration," Targos said.
"I felt a duty to say something when I had an opportunity to say something so the administrator could hear directly from the workers," she said.
This Monday, EPA began moving forward on a new contract with AFGE Council 238, the agency's largest union, which represents more than 8,000 EPA employees and includes AFGE Local 704 among its affiliates. Union officials have blasted the agreement, saying it puts harsh limits on their work as well as EPA staff, and was not properly bargained, sparking an unfair labor practice complaint (Greenwire, June 26).
EPA says the union has repeatedly failed to negotiate new terms over several years going back to the prior administration. Agency managers contend that the union needs to return to the bargaining table if it wants a better deal.
Asked for a response to yesterday's protest, an EPA spokesman said, "This collective bargaining agreement [CBA] expired 12 years ago, the Trump EPA has worked with AFGE for the past 2 ½ years to reach a new CBA, and EPA is not the party refusing to come to the negotiating table."
AFGE Council 238's previous contract is from 2007. Negotiations to rework the agreement first began in 2010 and have been off and on since then, and have included litigation. In May last year, EPA gave notice to union officials that it wanted to start those talks up again to renegotiate the agreement.
EPA says after the union declined to negotiate new ground rules for talks this June, the agency imposed the new contract, which went into effect this week. New restrictions on telework, official time and use of agency equipment and office space by union officials have led to protests by employees.
EPA's awards ceremony was held yesterday afternoon in the Ronald Reagan Building's atrium hall. Staff from headquarters and regional offices were there to accept awards for their work on behalf of EPA. Wheeler shook hands and took photos with employees who walked on stage after their names were called.
"Administrator Wheeler was proud to host the National Honor Awards ceremony for the first time in 10 years and recognize the outstanding achievements of more than 700 EPA staff," said the EPA spokesman.
Targos, who has been with EPA since 2015, was part of the Zephyr oil refinery-Great Lakes remediation team who won a silver medal for superior service. They won the award for "exemplary problem-solving and project management in the successful remediation of an extremely toxic contaminated sediment site under extreme pressure and tight timelines," according to EPA's award booklet.
Targos said after her protest, she walked off the stage of her own accord and was not impeded at all. She was asked by a security guard if she was an EPA employee and was supposed to be receiving an award. She confirmed to the guard that she was, and no further action was taken.
"Initially surprised but then in quiet admiration. And upon further contemplation, it probably should not have shocked the administration officials," said an EPA employee who witnessed the protest when asked for their impression. "A lot of people looked serious, but she looked even more serious than most."
The employee added that Wheeler looked surprised at the protest but was gracious enough to step aside.
In her interview with E&E News, Targos said the new EPA contract is "unfair and illegal."
"They need to go back to the negotiating table, and in the interim, they need to remove this contract that imposed on us workers and return us to the working conditions we had before July 8," she said. "If they want what is best for the agency, that's what they should do."