Facing relocation of their offices and jobs, employees of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture joined their USDA colleagues at the Economic Research Service by voting today to form a bargaining unit with the American Federation of Government Employees.

NIFA workers voted 137-2 to unionize, a result that was met with cheers and applause at the agency’s offices in Southwest Washington, D.C.

One 19-year employee of the agency said he voted for unionization because it “gives us a voice.”

“That’s the only reason to do this,” he said. “Right now we’re not at the table.”

“We need this to be delayed, rethought,” AFGE representative Peter Winch said of the proposed relocation.

USDA released a statement from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue identical to the one issued after ERS voted to unionize last month in a similar landslide majority, 138-4. Perdue pledged 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 proposal has been controversial, with former ERS administrators and NIFA directors calling it wholly unjustified. Many groups, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, American Statistical Association, the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Farmers Union, have come out strongly against the plan.

USDA announced last August it planned to move ERS and NIFA out of Washington, D.C., saying that a relocation would “improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff” and place USDA resources closer to stakeholders.

Another benefit, according to USDA: “There will be significant savings on employment costs and rent, which will allow more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets.”

Critics of the moves say the agencies have no problem attracting and retaining employees, that their stakeholders, including other federal agencies, are in and around D.C. and the loss of long-term employees will hurt the organizations.

Both agencies have been losing personnel as the process has moved forward with a winnowing of the initial 136 “expressions of interest” from communities around the nation to the current list of three top finalists — the greater Kansas City region, the Research Triangle region in North Carolina, and “multiple locations” in Indiana, including West Lafayette, home to Purdue University.

Supporters include congressional delegations from the states under consideration for the new ERS and NIFA offices as well as state commodity groups and land-grant universities, mostly within the states that may become the new homes for ERS and NIFA.

“As representatives of North Carolina, we stand ready to assist you with providing any further information about our state’s countless attributes, and we look forward to further discussions about North Carolina’s resources, talent, and access that make it an exceptional candidate for ERS and NIFA’s new home,” said a letter from North Carolina’s congressional delegation to Perdue.

Jack Payne, head of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, told a House subcommittee last week that the agencies don’t have a problem attracting and retaining staff, and they don’t need to be near producers.

“NIFA and ERS have never worked with farmers and ranchers,” he said. NIFA is primarily a grant-making agency and ERS produces reports analyzing many aspects of U.S. agriculture, including the ag economy, food and nutrition issues, resources and the environment, and the rural economy.

At a rally held outside the agency this morning, one NIFA employee said the agency’s workforce has dwindled from about 345 when the announcement was made to about 225 today.

One employee who has been at USDA for nearly 30 years said she had “no problem” living somewhere else but that the D.C. area “is my home.”

She also said it’s easier for NIFA to work with other science agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, if it is in Washington. “The federal science enterprise is in D.C.,” she said.

“I do care about our mission,” she said. “We can achieve things for U.S. agriculture.”

The employees criticized USDA leaders for a lack of transparency surrounding the process. They said they had not heard from Perdue. “I really want to invite him to the going-away party,” said one.

On Capitol Hill, the House agriculture appropriations bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee includes language blocking the moves, and standalone legislation to do the same has been introduced in both chambers.

For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com