"Activism is at an All-Time High" Interview with President J. David Cox Sr.

This article was originally printed in the National Journal here.

J. David Cox Sr. has served as national president of the American Federation of Government Employees since 2012 and was the union’s secretary-treasurer for six years prior. AFGE, an AFL-CIO affiliate, represents 700,000 employees across 14 federal agencies with 310,000 active members. Cox, a former nurse in the Veterans Affairs Department, spoke with National Journal's Alex Clearfield about the federal workforce and why President Trump is “Bush on steroids.”

National Journal: What agencies has the Trump administration done right by in its first eight months?

J. David Cox Sr.: I don’t think he’s done right by any. It’s no secret our Border Patrol and [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] councils endorsed him, but on the same token they’re not seeing any results of that. It’s still business as usual, and I can’t see any good of any agency.

How has your activism and organizing picked up since Trump was elected?

Our membership has grown every month since before the election, even though each month we’re 5,000 members in the hole due to people quitting, leaving government, dying, or changing agencies. Our activism is at an all-time high. … Our members are engaging like they’ve never engaged before, because they fear their future and their jobs are on the line when you have a president whose first action was to freeze federal hiring and call for abolishing a lot of federal jobs.

What have been the lasting effects of the federal hiring freeze that ran from January to April of this year?

Agencies are still very slow to hire. I was at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base [near Dayton, Ohio] and the general was saying they were still behind, because when the freeze took effect people they had in the pipeline took other jobs. Agencies are still being told that even though the hiring freeze is lifted, “Don’t hire.” They’re being asked to give plans of how they can have less employees and have more contract employees, which are more expensive for taxpayers, less committed to the government, and don’t do the job federal employees can do.

Have agencies been receptive to telework and other flexible work policies?

No. While the Office of Personnel Management has pushed for more telework and it’s been liberalized, there’s still a constant pushback from agencies on telework. … Here in the D.C. area, the government would save the transit subsidy and the person would gain a couple hours in their day, so it’s a win-win.

You have argued in the past for a 5.3 percent increase to make up for Obama-era pay freezes, but the administration’s most recent budget was at 1.9 percent. How do you make the case to Congress and the White House to pay for such an increase?

This year we supported legislation [sponsored by Rep. Gerald Connolly] that was at 3.2 percent. The military is a getting 2.1 percent increase, but we believe we should have pay parity. We work side-by-side with the military. … Federal employee pay is still behind the private sector by 39 percent, according to the Federal Employee Pay Comparability Act. Every president, Democrat or Republican, came in and refused to give us accurate cost-of-living adjustments, and we continue to be behind in pay.

You’ve been in AFGE leadership since 2006. How do the Republican administrations of George W. Bush and Donald Trump stack up?

Trump is Bush on steroids. Bush was not very gracious to federal employees and their unions, but we got pay parity every year and cost-of-living adjustments. Trump came in and immediately froze hiring and with proposals to annihilate federal-employee retirement. He’s appointed secretaries whose goal is to close the agency, like [the Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development], and the Department of Energy. At least Bush’s folks didn’t come in with an agenda to close agencies.

How would proposals, like the one floated by former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, to relocate government agencies from the D.C. metro area around the country affect the federal workforce at large?

Eighty-five percent of the federal workforce is outside the Beltway, so I don’t think he totally understood that. For secretaries and agency headquarters, I can’t imagine a president would want the secretary of the Treasury in Kansas when they have to interact on a daily basis. Clearly, it would be difficult for agencies since they have constant interaction with Congress and the executive branch.

In light of the hack of personal information at OPM, what is the appropriate remedy to the situation?

We need infrastructure in the federal government. OPM’s computer systems were more outdated than my Royal portable typewriter from college, and were easily hackable. … This is a world we need to get more aggressive with, but it’s going to cost the government money. The best thing they can do is invest in the infrastructure and have it run by federal employees. You can’t just contract this out and let some private company do it, because they’re getting hacked too.

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