Federal Employees News Digest

Federal unions help press House to reject—for now—cuts in pay, benefits

A range of cuts—some deep and some shallow—to federal pay and benefits, proposed in various House of Representatives bills in recent months, ran into solid federal employee and union opposition, and most of the worst cuts, for now, have been defeated.


So says one major federal employee union—the American Federation of Government Employees, which credits the wins against many of the cuts to their union’s collective actions—speaking out publicly and lobbying against some of the most serious attacks on compensation they have faced in many years.

The final budget resolution that passed on Oct. 26 had been cleaned of the most egregious proposals and cuts in compensation. But the major federal employee unions—and the experts—are of course not of one mind on where the budget resolution leaves feds, and the country.


Unions differ

The American Federation of Government Employees has been particularly loud and proud about its role in halting many patently damaging proposals.


“AFGE activists defeated the severe cuts to federal employees' pay, retirement, and health care,” the union said in a statement, “after making tens of thousands of phone calls to their members of Congress urging them not to accept any final budget that cuts federal employee compensation.”


Despite this win, the union statement cautions its members and other feds that “this is no time to celebrate.”  Indeed, AFGE President J. David Cox noted that the bill that passed is a still a bad one, for working people and ultimately for all Americans.


“In voting for this irresponsible budget resolution, lawmakers have gone on record supporting a plan that raises taxes on middle-class workers, cuts services largely benefiting lower-income Americans, and delivers huge tax cuts to the top 1 percent – all while increasing the nation’s deficit," Cox said.


Indeed, the bill that did pass still calls for cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from key programs needed and used by the vast majority of Americans, including Medicare, as well as Medicaid—even while it adds to a resulting additional $1.5 trillion in deficits, as the unions and experts have noted.


The National Treasury Employees Union has a slightly more astringent take on the bill that passed—and a less sunny view of the future.


“The budget resolution would order $32 billion in subsequent cuts to fall squarely on current and future federal employees and retirees,” a statement by the union said, “guaranteeing they have less money to pay their bills every month and smaller bank accounts in their senior years.”


Why the difference in takes? Much of it is because the NTEU focused its analysis—and wrath—on the bill’s language and recommendations for the future.


“The specific proposals [that would cause further cuts for feds] would still need to be crafted and moved in separate legislation to become law,” the NTEU statement said. “The budget’s recommendations to lawmakers include raising the amount that federal employees pay into their retirement program, which could cut their take-home pay by 6 or 7 percent; eliminating the supplemental benefit for employees who retire early, which would severely impact those federal law enforcement officers who must retire at age 57; and overhauling the current Federal Employees Retirement System altogether, leaving only the Thrift Savings Plan.”


Regardless of what follows the budget resolution, all observers note that just around the bend the majority in Congress are expected to push for tax cuts for wealthier Americans that without astronomical growth in the economy would lead to more deficits—while reducing net compensation for most earners in the population.


 “America’s working families deserve better than a budget that will make billionaires like the Koch brothers even richer while slashing health care and other services that benefit our nation’s oldest and poorest citizens,” AFGE’s Cox said of the tax plans floated so far, complaining specifically of the well-known energy-fortune family who have often lobbied for pared-down government—including lowered compensation for public jobs.


“Since when is it acceptable to attack the very people who are providing hurricane relief, protecting clean air and water, conducting cutting-edge scientific research, enforcing the tax laws, securing the border, maintaining the national parks and guarding our financial system?” NTEU President Tony Reardon said, in the NTEU statement. “Federal employees are not some wasteful government program – they are your neighbors, providing vital services to taxpayers, in every city and state in America.”


Reardon, in a letter sent to every House member sent prior to the vote on the resolution, reiterated something he and Cox and other union leaders have said time and again: federal employees have unfairly lost approximately $200 billion “in the name of deficit reduction” over recent years, by way of multiple pay freezes, forgone or lesser raises and, twice, increases in what feds must pay up front to fund their retirement benefits.


Bottom line is that although the resolution that passed wasn’t as bad as some earlier iterations, the bill was hardly the kindest to federal employees. 


Experts: Unions must deepen participation


Bob Bussel, a professor of history and the director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon—much like the federal unions themselves—sees both hope and peril in recent developments on Capitol Hill. He also advised federal employees and their unions to hammer away with the many accepted tools.


“Federal employees, in districts where there are many of them, have pretty well-developed political operations which allow those employees to amplify their voices and make themselves better heard on these issues,” noted Bob Bussel, a professor of history and the director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. “Their megaphone is particularly loud in some areas.”


In the case of these federal employee unions, there are many things employees can do to help to push their agendas with politicians on both sides of the aisle, Bussel says. “They can attend town meetings, be in touch with people in their congressional offices, meeting regularly in general with elected officials—these can all help.”


“If they’ve done a good job over the years, educating members of Congress and others about the work that they do, and about their wages, hours and working conditions—this is all important,” Bussel told FEND. “They have long-term relationships with certain people, and in many cases they have found not only friends of labor, but real champions. That’s one way they can come out on top.” 


“There really are a range of tactics—from letters, phone calls, petitions, personal meetings—that can keep the federal employees and their needs on the politicians’ radar,” Bussel said.


Peter Philips, a much-respected labor economist at the University of Utah, also shared his opinion with FEND, that federal employee organizations probably helped rein in the worst of House majority proposals—by using conventional public-sector union tactics, including those Bussel has enumerated. But these unions must do more, and sustain their efforts over time, if they want to really have lasting impact for their members, he said.


“Nobody alone can get much done,” Philips said. “Public-sector unions, only in combination with other private-sector unions and broader social movements, together can change the conversation—and actually get somewhere on pressing labor and compensation issues.”


Philips praised current efforts by federal unions to push back—and even gain fairer compensation and benefits. But, referring to his own longer-term research and work—into larger macroeconomic trends of more automation, fewer full-time employees and squeezed compensation packages—Philips advised all federal unions to dig deeper, and work more closely with other parts of the labor movement and organizations.

“As this administration has pointed out, one thing they have gotten right, is that this moment is a point of great opportunity for creative restructuring of the political conversation in the United States, and public-sector unions can play a role in that,” he told FEND. “For them to do that effectively, they have to be both good—and lucky.”


“Public-sector unions have to see beyond their parochial interests, especially those of each single organization—and they have to face and be involved in wider-economy big questions and big answers.”

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