This is the second segment of AFGE’s 4-part series: AFGE at 90: How AFGE members have beaten the odds for nearly a century
In the 1950s, AFGE faced pressure on many fronts. Federal workers still didn’t have collective bargaining rights. The Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies downgraded jobs to save money. Pay raises had not kept up with the inflation. Our due process was under attack. And we also witnessed the birth of one of the most enduring and damaging policy ideas in American history: privatization of federal jobs.
In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a statement saying that it was the policy of the government to rely on the private sector for commercial services. That policy later provided a framework for the creation of the outsourcing process called Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76.
AFGE immediately launched a campaign against the effort, pointing out the additional costs to taxpayers, the lower level of accountability, the threat to national security, and the betrayal of Congress’s obligation to manage government.
The battle began in the Department of Defense, and AFGE won early rounds. We successfully lobbied Congress to put in place some restrictions, but Eisenhower did not comply. AFGE promised a legal challenge, but after Congress had adjourned in August, DoD announced it was shutting 14 manufacturing operations and contracted out work to the private sector.
The Appropriations Committee had 90 days to decide if such action was “uneconomical or harmful to national defense,” but DoD had timed its move carefully. Congress would not come back in session in time. There would be no legal challenge.
One of the most outrageous cases of privatization took place at the Indian Point Naval Powder Factory in Maryland, which was one of the most modernized, efficient arms manufacturing facilities in the country in 1958. The facility produced fuels for rockets, missiles, and other modern weapons of the time while also conducting research and development.
But operations were cut back, and over two years, 2,000 of its 3,200 workers were laid off. AFGE protested loudly, but no new work arrived.
Where was the work going? The Washington D.C.-based Evening Star newspaper tracked it down and found that the Navy and the Air Force had written checks to Aerojet-General Corps of Sacramento to build new production facilities and produce fuels.
The company was headed by Dan A. Kimball, former Secretary of the Navy. Indian Head commanding officer Captain George E. King was also retiring and going to work for Aerojet. The corruption that is a feature of privatization was in plain sight. Officials inside the government were working hard to send governmental work into the private sector, then joining the companies to whom the work had been outsourced – profiting handsomely from their efforts.
These privatization efforts only accelerated under President Nixon -- especially at DoD. But AFGE took legal action and successfully prevented the dismantling of the Office of Economic Opportunity and stopped efforts to privatize the Public Health System. DoD continued to be the lead agency, heavily outsourcing its work, and remained so for decades to come.
But life under Eisenhower was not all bad.
AFGE won a landmark victory in the form of the Federal Health Benefits Act, which was passed in 1960. For the first time ever, the government would pay one-third of the cost of benefits, and insurance would pay up to 80% of non-hospital expenses. The program took some time to phase in through the newly created Bureau of Retirement and Insurance. Federal workers were required to have 12 years of service before becoming eligible, for example. Included in the new list of plan options was the AFGE plan the union had created in 1955 to provide our first comprehensive health program for members. It rivaled private health care programs and was a benchmark for federal workers.
AFGE also successfully protected workers who were downgraded – they would not suffer a pay cut, increased travel allowance, improved the Retirement Act, and managed a 7.5% raise for all employees in 1956 and a 10% raise for white-collar employees in 1958. We also won time off for federal workers to vote.
That was just a hint of what was to come after John F. Kennedy was elected president.
The big break
As AFGE’s voice grew stronger, there was still one fundamental piece missing from our ability to represent federal employees: collective bargaining.
Our union kept at it, and our big break came when John F. Kennedy took over the White House.
Under the leadership of AFGE President James Campbell, Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988 in 1961 institutionalizing labor management relations by recognizing federal employee unions. The directive required the Civil Service Commission to institute procedures to implement the union recognition program and directed the Department of Labor (DoL) to develop standards of conduct for agencies.
Kennedy’s EO opened the doors to AFGE organizing around the country. The union enjoyed the single greatest jump in membership in its history, vaulting from 71,000 members in 1961 to 301,000 members by 1970.
Three days after Kennedy signed the EO, the first lodge to take advantage of the president’s directive was AFGE Lodge 12, representing DoL employees.
But Kennedy’s EO was not welcomed by managers in many agencies. DoD officials, in particular, put up a series of roadblocks to avoid union recognition, but Assistant Defense Secretary Norman Paul put an end to that in a single directive.
To tend to the Kennedy EO matters and to advise local officers and national staff, AFGE President John Griner established a Staff Counsel Office. He also created the Contract Negotiation Department to assist with the many exclusive recognition agreements that had been negotiated.
AFGE continued to pressure Kennedy to establish voluntary dues deduction from paychecks, which he eventually did in 1963. The directive did more than any single act in the history of the union to stabilize its resources and allow staff to focus on issues more than the very survival of the organization.
These victories culminated in a pioneering 1966 collective bargaining agreement between AFGE and field office employees of the Department of Labor. It would become a model for AFGE-federal government contracts for decades to come.
But AFGE never stopped working to expand these rights under Kennedy’s EO. Our bargaining rights were affirmed when President Richard Nixon issued EO 11491 in 1969 creating the Federal Labor Relations Council to oversee labor-management relations, unfair labor practices, binding arbitrations, certain disputes, major policy issues, appeals. The EO also created the Federal Service Impasses Panel to resolve bargaining impasses.
The 1960s were a time of exponential growth in AFGE. As membership headed toward a high of 301,000 by 1969, convention delegates voted for higher per-capita payments to the union. With those funds, Griner hired public relations specialists, expanded the Education Department, created a department to provide full-time service to Wage Board workers, and hired more organizers. Delegates voted to make their 14 national vice president jobs full time. AFGE also received a $1 million organizing grant from the AFL-CIO to fund large organizing teams that traveled the country for the next decade.
Also in 1969, AFGE members lobbied for and won improved retirement benefits, including a formula based on the 3 highest consecutive years of service, sick leave in the computation to determine the multiplier, correcting the cost-of-living adjustment formula, and allowing widows or widowers to keep benefits if they remarry.
AFGE and the civil rights movement
In 1940, while segregation and low-wage jobs for African Americans were the norm across the country, including the federal government, AFGE Local 383, founded by African Americans at the Industrial Home School in D.C. Government, was already 3 years old and an active part of the union.
Back then, not all public sector unions represented African American workers, but AFGE did, and that had a huge, long-lasting impact on wages for Black workers who held a majority of wage grade jobs.
In 1962, African American AFGE members began to push the union leadership to prioritize blue collar wages. Five years later, AFGE adopted a new strategy to reform the method of setting pay for blue-collar workers. We also pushed for passage of a new bill, the Wage Grade Act, which passed Congress in 1970 but got vetoed by Nixon. In exchange for Nixon’s support of the bill, Griner publicly endorsed him for reelection.
Griner’s endorsement of Nixon, however, rocked AFGE’s convention that year. Nixon was the man who had proposed wage freezes and Reductions in Force across the board for federal workers.
The Wage Grade bill became law in November 1972 after the presidential election and a month after Griner resigned his presidency due to poor health. The Wage Grade law provided unprecedented pay increases for the 800,000 blue collar workers.
A few years before that, in 1968, AFGE members voted to create the union’s Fair Practices Department at a time when America was beginning an important reckoning on race. Having faced racism head-on for 30 years, AFGE took the lead in creating a union response to racist policies and practices in the federal sector. The Fair Practices Department was expanded to the Women’s and Fair Practices Department (WFP) in 1970s.
In 2009, AFGE members elected Augusta Y. Thomas to lead WFP. Thomas was a civil rights champion who won several awards for decades of work. In 1960, she participated in a sit-in in Greensboro, N.C., after seeing on TV the injustice that bestowed upon four young Black men who had been refused service at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. She sat on a stool day after day but was never served. She was kicked, spit on, knocked off the stool, arrested, and sent to jail twice. They were especially vicious toward her because they thought she was a white woman who was a traitor to her race. Thomas’s courage inspired us all. She passed away in October 2018.
Next week we’ll explore one of the greatest accomplishments in AFGE history: passage of the Civil Service Reform Act which codified collective bargaining rights in law rather than relying on the presidential executive orders. The law later proved the wisdom of our union as federal workers faced attacks on their livelihood and fundamental rights under Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
Missed the first part of the series? Read it here.