Federal Employees News Digest

Got lemons?

If somebody hands you lemons, don’t complain that they are bitter. Make lemonade. Did one of your parents, or a wise old uncle or aunt ever lay that one on you?  If so, what were they talking about? What’s the great life lesson, if any? In this case for lemon insert the name Donald Trump.

Could  Trump’s presidency—love it or hate it—unwittingly bring federal and postal unions back to the bipartisan clout they enjoyed on Capitol Hill, and even in the White House from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s. During the Nixon years federal and postal unions (the AFGE, NALC and NAGE) had a close if quiet  relationship that benefited workers. The presidents of all three unions endorsed his reelection bid as private citizens­—not as union leaders—then leaked it to the press. The wink, wink, nudge, nudge action allowed the union’s to improve pay and benefits for employees until Watergate brought an end to the odd alliance. And if so, if unions could regain some of their clout, what would that mean for you whether you are a union member or what some stalwarts call a ‘free-rider.’

It’s probably safe to say that federal and postal unions currently spend much, maybe most, of their time complaining about President Donald Trump. For good reason. Fair enough.

They didn’t want him, or any of the GOP hopefuls, but they got him. All but one (AFGE’s Border Patrol Council) opposed him in word, deed and with political PAC money. And he’s given them lots of ammunition with his draining the swamp pledges, shots at the retirement system and promises to ‘reshape’—as in maybe fold, staple, mutilate—the government structure. And workforce. As in you. But he may also have given them the greatest recruiting tool the unions ever had: Himself. 

Every other late tweet seems to give some group of feds, or their clients, heartburn. In fact, if he didn’t exist, the federal unions would have had to invent him. 

If they play their cards right, the organizations and unions, which mostly have been bleeding members or treading water for years, could, maybe, might  see a surge in new dues-paying members or energized current members.  In playing the membership numbers game unions have sometimes been their worst enemies. In an effort to seem like they have more members and muscle, they often confuse the number of members they have with the number of people they represent. Big difference.  Most feds outside the U.S. Postal Service do not belong to a union. Never thought about it. They may be ‘represented’ by a union.  The union may be ‘required’ to represent them in time of need. But in most cases they have nothing to do with the groups. No input, certainly no dues money. Result— the unions sometimes enter the political arena with one hand tied behind their backs.

(Disclaimer: Except for a one-year period when I worked for a non-union publication, I have been a union member since I was a teenager. The Newspaper Guild for many years. I served as an officer, Unit Chairman was my title, for the Guild at The Washington Post. I now belong to SAG-AFTRA which represents people in the movies, radio and television. In fact I’m in the same union as Sandra Bullock, which gives us even more in common. But I digress…)

The numbers game, putting your best foot forward, is often misleading. Sometimes problematic. Example: In accepting the endorsement of  a couple of federal unions candidate Hillary Clinton thanked them and their 700,000-plus members for their support.  That might have made her feel good, and made the unions feel good, but the numbers she cited—which the unions gave to —were and are way, way off. They may ‘represent’ that number but they don’t have anything like that number of members.

Unions (with occasional gains here and there) have been holding steady or losing members for decades. One organization was losing nearly 1,000 members a month—to death—for a long-time. It takes a massive, successful recruiting campaign to replace those dues-payers. And so far nobody has come up with a way to control the hemorrhaging which is effective most nonfederal unions too.

A former national union president says “it’s a two-fold problem.  First the industries that were traditionally heavily unionized have gone away (coal mining) or automated or gone overseas, or both. Secondly, and this sounds like an old guy griping, nobody wants to pay for anything anymore. Young people don’t like commercials which pay for TV shows so they get cable which allows them to skip over commercials. People find ways around paying for a newspaper’s on-line version. Then they wonder why it went out of business. Same for the feds” although he used the less friendly “free riders” for employees who get union benefits but don’t pay for them via dues.

So what about a potential Trump Bump?  How would it work?  Unless they get creamed in the process, groups representing rank-file-feds, managers, SES types and retirees might get a double-header bump: First in the form of current members who would be energized. Willing to work harder and contribute to political action groups.  Secondly, new members. People who have never belonged to anything before but are suddenly willing (or scared into) joining a group and helping finance it. With very few exceptions, union membership is dwindling in the U.S.  But in the strange world of Washington, having a good enemy—like a super tough drill instructor in the military—is often worth more than a batch of friends. Especially the kind of feel-good-friends f who say all the right things but don’t deliver much. If anything. The trick, of course, is surviving even as you are being reformed, realigned and reshaped.

For the past two decades gridlock on Capitol Hill has spared the federal retirement and benefits package from harm.  But if Congress and the White House get their act together civil servants could be in for some serious damage time.

Ask yourself a question. If things get worse, if Congress seriously considers whacking the retirement system by making you pay more now for less later on, would join a union if you could? And if you’re already a member would you seriously consider asking colleagues in the office or your car pool to sign on the union  line? If enough people said yes, it could be back to the future time.

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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
Mike Causey Columnist
Tom Fox VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service
Mathew B. Tully Legal Analyst

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