Major union creates local for estimated 10,000 eligible US federal workers in Europe
Stars and Stripes March 30, 2023
Updated 5:45 p.m. Central European Time, April 4, 2023
One of the largest U.S. labor unions is now offering membership to most federal civilian workers in Europe in response to dozens of complaints it says it received in recent months, many of which were lodged by Defense Department employees.
The American Federation of Government Employees estimates that 10,000 federal workers in Europe, most of whom are in Germany, can join unless they are already represented by another union. General schedule, wage grade and nonappropriated fund employees are eligible.
AFGE Local 14 is the union’s new at-large chapter in Europe and welcomed a handful of initial members in recent months before officially announcing its activation Thursday.
It joins over 930 other locals that make up AFGE and represent some 750,000 workers in almost every agency of the federal government.
U.S. government employees in Europe have reported problems unique to working abroad, said Ottis Johnson Jr., a national vice president whose district includes Local 14.
Among them is a practice known as bait and switch, in which civilians move overseas to take a job offer, only to be placed in a different position once they arrive.
Inconsistencies over contract extensions and various forms of job discrimination are also among the “steady stream of complaints” AFGE has received from workers in Europe, according to attorney Javier Soto, the group’s representative on the Continent.
“They come here with these ideas that things are going to be interesting in Europe, and they wind up with a big disappointment,” said Soto, adding that some workers have told him they were reprimanded for speaking out about their work conditions.
It’s not uncommon for unrepresented workers in Europe to avoid taking their grievances to court or abandon legal proceedings because of mounting costs, according to those familiar with the situation.
“I’ve seen employees who have spent $30,000 out of pocket without any resolution,” said Mark Cox, a Defense Department employee in Germany who is one of the inaugural members of Local 14. “And I’ve seen where civilian employees have completely resigned from government, people who put quite a few years into their career.”
Civilians supporting DOD in Europe fill a range of blue- and white-collar roles. Medical professionals, human resource managers, child care givers and Army and Air Force Exchange clerks are just some of those eligible for union membership. Managers and supervisors are not allowed to join.
Letrice Titus, who recently relocated to the Kaiserslautern Military Community in Germany, the largest overseas U.S. military community in the world, was surprised to learn some of her colleagues thought union membership is prohibited in Europe.
She and her colleague Destanie Overcash also became inaugural members of Local 14. Both Titus and Overcash are DOD employees.
Although neither of them has had any serious problems at work, they said belonging to a union is important to them abroad, where rules, regulations and entitlements can sometimes be unclear and confusing.
AFGE used to have a larger presence in Europe, but nearly all its previous locals folded after a change in Defense Department policy made it difficult to maintain leadership on the Continent, union spokesman Tim Kauffman said.
Initially, all new members in Europe will belong to Local 14. However, officials hope to attract enough workers to eventually create various European locals based on profession and location.
With higher numbers, they’re aiming eventually to petition the U.S. Federal Labor Relations Authority to hold elections. Federal employees in designated units would then vote on whether they want the union to represent them for collective bargaining purposes.
If an election is successful, federal agencies would be required to bargain with the union.
A unit could be large, such as all DOD employees in a country. Or it could be defined by occupation or by a particular worksite, depending on who expresses an interest, union officials said.
Bargaining and initiating discussions with superiors to help minimize problems in the workplace are the local’s ultimate goals, AFGE officials said.
In the meantime, AFGE says it will provide legal representation to members who need it.
People seeking more information about AFGE can go the union’s website or email Soto at email@example.com.