With members getting Trump-averse, the federal workers union targets midterms

Defending what Newt Gingrich blasted as “the job for life,” federal civil servants join the battle for the midterms

By Bob Hennelly

Published October 21, 2018 8:00AM (EDT)

Among those with the most at stake in the Congressional midterm elections are the rank and file of the unions that represent the Federal Government’s two-million-member workforce.

Since President Trump took office 21 months ago, they have been the target of him and allies like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who served on his transition team. Mr. Gingrich urged the President to wage a “straight-out war” aimed at ending what he called “the job for life” with the Federal civil service.

Mr. Trump has canceled a Federal pay raise, proposed budgets to cut workers’ health and retirement benefits and issued executive orders to eliminate employee protections that evolved over decades of collective bargaining.

And while a Federal Judge ruled several months ago that the President’s executive orders were an “unconstitutional” overreach, his strategy to push the unions out of the Federal workplace still has traction in agencies like the Department of Education. Early this year, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos unilaterally announced a “collective-bargaining agreement” that covered 4,000 Federal employees that the union said it had no role in negotiating.

As a consequence, the American Federation of Government Employees has launched a nationwide effort to get out the vote in mid-terms, highlighted by a weekend of political action Oct. 20-21 with close to 60 events planned across the country.

Members Admit Mistake

The union has also endorsed hundreds of Congressional candidates and increased its political-action funding to increase their member to member communication efforts. There are also coordinated efforts with both other public- and private-sector unions.

“Forty percent of our members voted for Trump because of his demeanor on the campaign trail when he said he was all about making America work again for working people,” said Philip Glover, national vice president of AFGE District 3. “Now, we are really hearing from those members saying they have to go the other way to make sure we don’t have all three branches of the government stacked against us.”

And union officials point out that in a key state like Pennsylvania, where Mr. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by only 44,000 votes, there are 30,000 AFGE voters.

Mr. Glover pointed to a recent union win as a sign of the union’s enduring clout. This month it beat back a push to privatize the FAA air-traffic-control function and won the reauthorization of the Transportation Security Administration for three years while establishing, for the first time, a labor/management committee to examine the TSA personnel system—including appeal rights to the Merit Systems Protection Board with grievance procedures.

'Not Creatures of Swamp'

“We have to counter this caricature that Federal workers are creatures of the swamp, especially since 85 percent of our workforce lives outside of Washington D.C.,” Mr. Glover said in a phone interview. “If it wasn’t for our whistleblowers that the union protects, you would never have heard about the backlog for veterans seeing doctors at the Veterans Administration, nor the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at VA facilities.”

He said that the Federal workforce that enjoyed union representation protected the interests of consumers. “There’s always been tremendous pressure when it comes to basics like government meat inspection to privatize it, to the detriment of consumers and the public health, just so that corporations can increase their profits,” he said.

Under the terms and conditions set out in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy signed off on the organizing of Federal workers, the unions had to operate as open shops where dues were voluntary, but all of the workers covered by the agreement had to be represented.

“We also don’t negotiate pay and benefits because Congress has control of the Federal purse-strings,” Mr. Glover said. “We negotiate working conditions, health and safety, scheduling, promotion equity and the discipline process.”

Even without the mandatory dues collections, about 55 percent of the workers the AFGE represents pay dues. “In between different locals, the agencies and even different parts of the country, you will see a range in participation,” he said. “In Corrections it can be as high as 70 percent, whereas the VA units can be anywhere from 70 to 30 percent. Where you have bad management, we fare better.”

Permitted Political Action

Mr. Glover said there were a lot of misperceptions about what restrictions were placed on Federal employees by the Hatch Act, first passed in 1939 and amended in 2012, to prevent employees of the Executive Branch from some forms of political activity.

“They can do phone-bank work that’s labor household to labor household making the case for why we are endorsing certain candidates,” he said. “And if somebody on their own time wants to volunteer for a candidate, that’s fine, but they can’t be paid by the campaign and we can only run for nonpartisan offices” like school board or a local town council.

As for campaign donations, Federal employees can donate to the candidate of their choice, “but neither they, nor their spouse, can go out and raise money for a candidate. But they can support our PAC,” Mr. Glover said.

This article originally appeared in The Chief

Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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