Bureau Of Land Management Employees Unionize In Wake Of Trump-Era Upheaval

The understaffed agency was buffeted by a headquarters relocation. Now workers are hoping a union can strengthen their hand.
Rock formations in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Two hundred of the agency's workers have voted to unionize.
Rock formations in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Two hundred of the agency's workers have voted to unionize.
George Rose via Getty Images

Federal workers who help oversee hundreds of millions of acres of federal land have formed a union.

Headquarters employees of the Bureau of Land Management voted 116 to 20 in favor of joining the National Treasury Employees Union in a ballot count held Wednesday, the union said. The new union would include roughly 200 workers based in Washington and regional offices around the country.

Part of the Interior Department, BLM is responsible for managing roughly a third of all federal land, equal to about 10% of the U.S. landmass, the bulk of it in the West. A handful of the agency’s offices already have union representation, but the headquarters group is the largest to unionize to date. The union will include workers who manage BLM programs and budgets, as well as administrative staff.

Zoe Davidson, a BLM employee who helped organize the union, said the agency’s employees generally love their jobs, but want a stronger voice when it comes to dealing with Congress and agency leadership. BLM has been understaffed for years, though President Joe Biden has proposed increasing funding so the agency can hire more and fill open roles.

“A union really gives you that voice on Capitol Hill,” said Davidson, a botanist based in New Mexico. “Congress puts a lot of pressure on us. We always get these congressional requests… but they never give us a boost in the budget or in permanent employees to do this stuff.”

Workers are also hoping to get more job security and prevent any big unilateral changes from leadership.

BLM employees were jostled around under the Trump administration, which sought to disperse employees from the D.C. headquarters to western offices, on the grounds that they should be closer to the majority of public lands. Most employees were reluctant to uproot their lives, and the relocation led to nearly 300 people ― the vast majority of affected workers ― resigning or taking early retirement. (Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney suggested attrition was the real goal.)

“We're under a very pro-union administration. We would love to build more unions.”

- Zoe Davidson

Biden’s interior secretary, Deb Haaland, said in September that the agency will restore its Washington headquarters while keeping many workers at a “Western headquarters” in Grand Junction, Colorado. Davidson said many headquarters employees were recently hired and are scattered in offices in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City and elsewhere, and they may not want to move, either.

Discussion of unionization preceded all the relocation upheaval, but the episode made clear to many workers that they want a seat at the table with agency leaders, according to Davidson. Workers at her New Mexico BLM office voted to unionize last year with NTEU, which led headquarters employees to reach out to her and her coworkers.

Federal workers are eligible to form unions, though they don’t have all the same rights as their private-sector counterparts. They cannot bargain directly over pay or go on strike, but their unions can have a say in the promotion process, scheduling and discipline, and make it harder for agency leadership to make major change without consultation.

The Biden White House has promoted collective bargaining as a means for workers to improve their jobs, including those in the federal government. The administration has unwound some of Trump’s attacks on unions in the federal sector, and taken a more diplomatic approach to bargaining.

“We’re under a very pro-union administration,” Davidson said. “We have tons of interest coming at us.... We would love to build more unions in the Bureau of Land Management.”

Tony Reardon, NTEU’s president, compared the BLM unionization effort to recent successes at employers like Starbucks and Amazon, where workers recently notched historic labor victories.

“It should be no surprise that as the labor movement makes new inroads in the private sector, the same would be true for the federal sector, because workers everywhere share the same goal: to be treated with dignity and respect,” Reardon, whose union represents 150,000 workers in 34 federal agencies, said in a statement.

BLM employs around 9,000 workers around the country ― roughly 95% of them outside Washington ― but there are an estimated 2,000 vacancies at the agency thanks in part to past federal hiring freezes. Public land advocates say the agency is chronically underfunded and poorly equipped to carry out its mission.

A Government Accountability Office report last year said many headquarters positions have been open since 2016, and workers have been pulled off their normal jobs to help fill those duties. Vacancies increased after the Trump administration announced the headquarters move.

“We saw what happened without a union,” Davidson said. “We’ll see what a union can do moving forward.”

Correction: This story originally misstated the election vote count. The union won 116-20, not 136-20.

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