Employees of USDA's Economic Research Service voted 138-4 on Thursday for union representation even as their department continues to proceed with plans to move ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of the nation's capital.

Cheering and applause from dozens of ERS employees greeted the announcement of the vote results. The employees will be represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) once the results are certified by the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which administered the vote count.

The vote came about a week after USDA announced three finalists for the new location: the Kansas City region, multiple locations in Indiana, or the Research Triangle area in North Carolina.

Peter Winch, a special assistant at AFGE, said the employees do not want to leave the D.C. area. "Both agencies should stay here in D.C.," he said following the vote. NIFA employees will vote on unionization June 11, he added.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue issued a statement after the vote pledging to "work with this group of employees just as we work with all USDA employees. I truly believe that the relocation of ERS and NIFA will help to fulfill USDA’s commitment to be the most effective, most efficient, and most customer-focused agency in the federal government, allowing us to be closer to our stakeholders and to move our resources closer to our customers. Our commitment to the public and our employees is to continue to be transparent as we proceed.”

The relocation proposal has been sharply criticized by former ERS administrators and NIFA directors, who say USDA has failed to justify the move economically or otherwise.

They have said historically, ERS and NIFA have not had trouble attracting top-flight talent to the National Capital Region despite its high cost of living and that turnover at the agencies is not a problem. They also argue that it makes more sense for the agencies to stay in the D.C. area so they can be readily accessible to members of Congress and their staff, as well as to other federal agencies doing similar work.

An ERS employee at the vote said locality pay for government employees at each of the three finalist locations is 12 percent to 13 percent less than the pay in D.C. and said employees have been leaving the agency since the relocation proposal was announced. He said he did not know how many employees ERS has now.

He said he hoped the creation of a bargaining unit would slow the process down so the proposal can be looked at more carefully; he also noted USDA has promised to do a cost-benefit analysis but has yet to produce one. “They’ve already made up their minds,” he said.

Another employee said she and other workers were being “forced to retire before they’re ready” and that she would probably be one of them, even though she cannot afford to retire. “They don’t care,” she said. “Hopefully I can find another job.”

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