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EPA Union Seeks Climate Emergency Declaration

Above photo: A view of the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in March 2017 in Washington, D.C. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

The EPA’s biggest union, signaling its dissatisfaction with the White House’s level of action on climate, will ask the Biden administration to declare a national climate emergency and take other ambitious steps on the environment.

The declaration of a national emergency would kick-start 123 statutory powers that aren’t otherwise available to the executive branch, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Included among them is the hiring of more climate scientists, engineers, and lawyers at the EPA, a goal shared by both the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238 and the Biden administration.

The request represents a marker for the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238 when it sits down with the Environmental Protection Agency on June 13 to negotiate a new contract.

“Maybe it’s a move-the-goalposts type of idea,” said Joyce Howell, chief negotiator for the union and an attorney in the EPA’s Philadelphia office. “There’s a window of opportunity for significant advances in the federal labor movement right now because of our president, so why not swing for the fences?”

A national climate emergency proposal is a popular idea among progressive Democrats. Among them is Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who called on Biden to make such a declaration soon after the president took office.

But it has gained little traction. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) introduced a bill (H.R. 794) in February 2021 that has drawn 53 Democratic cosponsors, but has languished since then.

Export Ban, Clean Energy Standard

The union, which represents 7,500 of the EPA’s 14,300 employees, also wants the White House to reinstate a crude oil export ban under the National Emergencies Act and Defense Production Act; enact a clean energy standard to decarbonize the power sector by 2035; and impose a moratorium on permitting fossil fuel facilities and infrastructure.

“So far into the administration, Biden really hasn’t addressed climate. At EPA we haven’t seen the level of climate action we want to see. He has issued EOs (executive orders), but there’s so much more we can do,” said Nicole Cantello, president of AFGE Local 704 in Chicago.

“There’s so much that EPA workers have to give to address the climate emergency that we are not giving right now,” she added. “But we have not been deployed, and the nation is not giving us the tools to address the climate emergency.”

Other requests include loan guarantees for renewable energy development, carbon emissions reductions at federal agencies, and the decarbonization of federal financial outlays, including the Thrift Savings Plan that provides retirement savings for federal employees.

Some of the requests will also be made in the union’s upcoming contract talks with the EPA, though a portion of them will only be included in preamble language that lays out the union’s aspirations, Howell, the union’s negotiator, said.

Showing Members

Dan Bowling, a labor relations professor at Duke University School of Law, said that as a general practice, unions will often bring up requests that are outside the scope of bargaining to “make different activist groups within the union happy.”

But many of the AFGE’s requests are well within the scope of bargaining, such as the codification of a scientific integrity policy into the contract, making it significantly harder for a future administration to turn it back, according to Cantello.

The EPA has taken several steps to shore up its scientific integrity policy under Administrator Michael Regan. During an agencywide meeting in March 2021, Francesca Grifo, the EPA’s scientific integrity official, laid out steps the agency will take to reinforce norms on honesty and rigor, transparency, commitment to evidence, and peer review.

Cantello also said the union will bargain for promotions to allow EPA scientists, engineers, and lawyers to earn more pay.

Howell said she expects the contract talks to be difficult.

“Sometimes I see glimmers that the agency has heard [President Joe] Biden’s and [Vice President Kamala] Harris’ message, which is, ‘Let’s work to empower unions and the workforce,’” she said. “But what I still see is, instead of collaboration, we get a win-loss type of mind frame. There seems to be a mental block as to why we can’t get to a collaboration framework.”

As an example, Howell said the EPA has given AFGE members a shared bank of only 50 hours of official time per week to draft their contract proposal. That limit is forcing union leaders to work on nights and weekends to get their proposal done, Howell said.

The EPA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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