NIFA employees vote to unionize as relocation looms

  • June 11, 2019

Employees of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture voted today to unionize in the face of the Agriculture Department’s plan to relocate the research-focused agency out of Washington.

The 137-2 vote in favor of forming a union was prompted by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s proposal to move NIFA and the Economic Research Service to a yet-to-be-announced location. The plan has led to unease and a drop in morale among employees of both agencies, current and former employees have told POLITICO. ERS employees voted to unionize last month.

NIFA handles USDA grants for agricultural research and acts as a liaison between land-grant universities and the federal government, coordinating regional research projects.

Perdue has said ERS and NIFA would benefit from being placed closer to farming communities. He’s also cited anticipated cost-savings and an improved ability to recruit and retain staff as justifications for the planned move.

But the proposal has sparked a backlash among lawmakers — mostly Democrats — and current and former ERS and NIFA employees. At ERS, current and former employees believe the move is an effort to silence scientists who produce research contrary to the Trump administration’s agenda. High-level NIFA employees are also upset over plans that will require them to compete for a limited number of positions that won’t require relocation.

USDA is running behind its previously announced schedule for unveiling a new home for the agencies. Perdue had aimed to make a decision by the end of May, but last week he told a news outlet in North Carolina it could be “days or weeks” before an announcement is made.

The finalists to host ERS and NIFA are the research triangle region in North Carolina, multiple locations in Indiana and the greater Kansas City area.