50 Years Ago this Week, JFK Told Federal Employees ‘Union, Yes!’

Categories: Labor

Many remember John F. Kennedy as the president who set our nation on a path to reaching to the moon, or as the first Catholic to occupy the Oval Office. But did you know he was also the first to give his employees a meaningful voice at work?

This week marks the 54th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s executive order
 granting federal employees stronger workplace rights and recognizing the value that an empowered workforce brings to public service.

This executive order, issued Jan. 17, 1962, was considered AFGE and federal employees’ most significant victory in that era, allowing employees to come together as one to secure a better future for their families. As pay and working conditions improved, more employees felt empowered and joined AFGE. As a result, AFGE membership grew by 159% in the ensuing decade, enabling us to make even greater gains for workers.  

President Kennedy understood the importance of unions and public service. In his inaugural speech the year before, he told the nation, “And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."

This call to action inspired a new generation of public servants and volunteers who wanted to serve and make a difference. 

The day following his inauguration, President Kennedy sent a telegram to AFGE that read: "The American Federation of Government Employees has played a notable part in broadening and deepening the standards of career and merit service in our government. I look forward to working with your members as I take on my new responsibilities."

As some elected officials and corporate CEOs are finding ways to destroy our union, our voice, our rights, it’s important to remember why we fight – to make a difference, to protect the dignity, justice, and equality that come with collective bargaining.

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