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At Tense Time for Unions, DeVos Clashes With Ed. Dept. Employee Representatives

By Alyson Klein — March 20, 2018 4 min read
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The American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents the agency’s nearly 4,000 federal workers, last week filed an unfair labor practices charge against the U.S. Department of Education.

AFGE accused DeVos and her team of “union busting” in a statement. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has taken up AFGE’s cause. But a spokeswoman for DeVos says AFGE “dragg[ed] its feet in negotiations” with the secretary and her team.

The tussle at the federal level comes during a tense time in education labor-management relations across the country. Teachers in several states have, or are prepared to, walk out on the job to protest low pay. (DeVos has largely steered clear of those disputes.)

And the Supreme Court is expected to settle a case that could have serious, long-term implications for public employee unions, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Over at the Education Department, AFGE contends that, after months of contentious negotiations, DeVos has imposed an “illegal collective bargaining agreement” that “guts” workers’ rights when it comes to things like workplace health and safety, telework, and alternative work schedules.

AFGE has also criticized DeVos for forcing its representatives to take unpaid leave to carry out their responsibilities. Department employees don’t have to join AFGE, but the union must represent the interests of everyone covered by the agency’s collective-bargaining agreement. Taking away paid time from representatives to do this work is like “asking the fire department to operate without firetrucks or a firehose,” AFGE said in a statement.

But Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for DeVos, said the union, “spent more than a year dragging its feet on ground rules negotiations without reaching any agreement, and then failed to respond in a timely manner to negotiate over the contract proposed by the Department. This contract complies with all statutory requirements and maintains union members’ rights under the Civil Service Protections Act and the Federal Labor Relations Act.”

And she added, “The goal of the [collective bargaining agreement] is to treat all employees and American taxpayers fairly.”

The contract dispute is happening as DeVos and her team are working on a major reorganization of the department. The plan calls for merging the Office of Innovation and Improvement, which deals with charter and private schools, with the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, the main K-12 office, among other changes.

The plan has meant reassignments for senior career managers and other employees. For instance, the department’s chief privacy officer, Kathleen Styles, was reassigned and replaced by her deputy, Angela Arrington. There has also been a shakeup at the department’s budget office, Politico and the New York Times have reported.

Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the clash with AFGE is emblematic of DeVos’ “anti-worker agenda.”

“The Department’s management forced a ‘contract’ upon its workforce that, as AFGE’s attorney explained, ‘wasn’t collective, wasn’t bargained, and wasn’t an agreement.’” Weingarten said in a statement. “It’s a disgrace, we condemn it, and we urge them to do better by their workforce, who’s simply asking for a seat at the table. DeVos’s anti-worker agenda aims to do enough damage in America’s public schools; we won’t let her wreak the same havoc within our federal workforce, too.”

The confrontation at the education department coincides with a big moment for education unions.

Teachers in West Virginia stopped work for nine school days until the state legislature agreed to a 5 percent pay-raise. Educators in Oklahoma are preparing a walk out in early April, and unions in other states are contemplating a similar move.

As secretary, DeVos hasn’t taken sides in the state-level teacher contract disputes, beyond saying on Twitter that she was dismayed West Virginia students were missing school. She also said she supported both higher teacher salaries and responsible state budgeting.

But back in Michigan, DeVos and her family rarely saw eye-to-eye with unions, including the Michigan Education Association, an NEA affiliate.

For instance, back in 2011, the Great Lakes Education Foundation, an advocacy organization that DeVos helped to found and fund, supported—but wasn’t the public face of—an ultimately successful effort to make changes to collective bargaining, teacher tenure protections, and teacher evaluation in the state.

A year later, the DeVos family was a force behind a successful campaign in Michigan to turn the state into a “right-to-work state.” (That means that employees can’t be compelled to pay union dues in order to get a particular job.) The Michigan Freedom Fund, an organization headed up by Greg McNeilly, a long-time associate of the DeVoses, helped lead the charge in getting the legislation passed.

The Michigan Education Association vehemently opposed both these changes.

DeVos also showed up at the Supreme Court to hear arguments in the Janus vs. American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees Council 31, Education Week‘s Mark Walsh first reported. The case will determine whether non-member employees who are covered by collective-bargaining agreements can be forced to pay union fees.

Photo: Swikar Patel

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