This is the final segment of AFGE’s 4-part series: AFGE at 90: How AFGE members have beaten the odds for nearly a century
In December 2000, when the Supreme Court order brought George W. Bush to the White House, AFGE members braced themselves for one of the most vicious attacks on the federal workforce and civil service in history.
Only two months into his presidency, Bush ordered the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to put at least 5% of all federal jobs up for grabs to contractors. They wanted to apply the A-76 circular to 425,000 federal jobs despite the fact that Congress had rebuked the Department of Defense, which used A-76 the most, for mismanaging it and making unsubstantiated claims of cost savings. The Pentagon also admitted to hiring 734,000 contract employees to do the work compared with 640,000 civilian federal employees.
To meet its goal of reviewing almost a million federal employee jobs for privatization over eight years, OMB revised the OMB Circular A-76 privatization process in May 2003 to allow for agencies to run privatization reviews more quickly. They made the circular far more subjective and expanded the pool of government jobs that could be reviewed for privatization.
For the next several years, AFGE and our key allies in the fight would offer floor amendments to force OMB to rewrite the rules so they would be more accountable to taxpayers and fairer to federal employees.
9/11 and the creation of Homeland Security
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people. Members from six AFGE locals were working at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon when the planes hit. Miraculously, all were spared. Hundreds of union workers died that day and thousands participated in the rescue and recovery.
Bush created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to act as an umbrella for all government intelligence gathering. Congress also passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which federalized the screening function and created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
AFGE had been pushing for the federalization of the screening function, and after the bill became law, we met with TSA officials on several occasions to persuade them to allow the workers to have a union and to bargain collectively.
AFGE actively engaged the new DHS from the beginning. It contained AFGE-represented Border Patrol, FEMA, Federal Protective Services, USCIS, Coast Guard, and ICE in addition to the newly created TSA. In 2003, the Bush administration established a new regulation that created a “fire at will”, eliminated collective bargaining, and set forth a new pay system to undermine salaries. The union’s attorneys launched a steady barrage of lawsuits at the new agency.
In 2005 we won a landmark court victory against DHS over the new personnel system, by then called the Human Capital Operational Plan, or MaxHR, when a federal court judge denied DHS’s request to implement the system. A year later, the U.S. Courts of Appeal struck down MaxHR based on the argument that it would undermine collective bargaining rights. In late 2007, after years of lobbying by AFGE and allies, Congress refused to fund the personnel system, killing it before it could do any more harm.
The fight to win collective bargaining rights for TSA officers
Under the leadership of AFGE President Bobby Harnage, AFGE in November 2002 filed our first petitions to represent TSA officers at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall, Chicago O’Hare, and Atlanta airports.
But the Bush administration was not going to let workers have a voice. On Jan. 8, 2003, then-TSA administrator James Loy announced that he was denying TSOs the right to bargain. AFGE immediately filed suit, charging that all federal workers have the constitutional right to assemble. In March, we chartered our first TSA local – Local 1 – with 13 dues-paying TSOs working at several of the nation’s largest airport.
Later that year, AFGE delegates elected John Gage as AFGE’s new president. Gage immediately carried on the TSA campaign. The union took the issue to Congress and the media, and in 2005, TSA issued a letter to all Federal Security Directors at airports detailing a TSO’s right to join and participate in a union.
Our TSA campaign continued as AFGE appealed decision after decision claiming the union had no right to represent the officers. AFGE filed suit on behalf of a TSO who was fired six months after being named a plaintiff in an AFGE lawsuit. The union also filed a class action suit and sought a temporary restraining order when TSA announced layoffs the union charged were illegal.
A few months later, following intense AFGE lobbying efforts, both the House and Senate passed provisions in their 9/11 Commission Recommendation bills granting TSOs bargaining rights. But Bush’s veto threat resulted in the provision being dropped from the final bill. It was a setback, but AFGE was far from giving up.
National Security Personnel System
DHS was not the only department targeted by the Bush administration. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld launched the National Security Personnel System (NSPS), DoD’s version of MaxHR.
The plan, slipped into fast-track legislation in 2003, allowed DoD to bypass 11 major civil service protections, including annual pay raises, step increases, appeal rights, bargaining rights, and Reduction in Force protections for 730,000 DoD employees. It also eliminated any competition between public and private by gutting the A-76 circular. AFGE fought for months to head off the bill, but the bill passed because a majority-Republican Congress believed Rumsfeld that labor rights obstructed national security.
In 2005, AFGE joined with nine other unions in filing suit against Rumsfeld over his plans to implement NSPS that would give him sole power to determine all wages and working conditions for civilian DOD employees and destroy whistle-blower protections. In November, AFGE and the United Defense Workers Coalition would file another suit. OPM announced plans to apply NSPS governmentwide as AFGE leaders had suspected all along. The coalition grew to 35 unions that kept the pressure on for 2 years.
A series of court battles had whittled away at NSPS, and DoD moved ahead to implement the rest. The NSPS battles would rage on for years, and in 2008, we won some victories. Congress finally restored collective bargaining and appeal rights to NSPS, leaving the performance management and pay systems intact, which AFGE continued to fight.
Hope, Part 1
AFGE entered the Obama era with hope. As presidential candidate, he sent AFGE letters detailing his positions and plans for government employees. Shortly after taking office, Obama made his stance known that he was more on the side of labor and government employees than any president since Lyndon Johnson. He said he viewed the labor movement as part of the solution, not the problem. Obama’s presidency was the change that AFGE members needed.
Even though Obama was on our side, we never failed to hold him accountable and make our priorities known. At DoD, we stepped up our efforts to kill NSPS once and for all. In June 2009, then AFGE president John Gage went back testifying on Capitol Hill over NSPS and how employees reported that their pay adjustments were subject to favoritism, discrimination, and other elements outside of market data and performance. The Pentagon’s own evaluation report revealed that employees who were making more got a higher salary raise percentage under NSPS. Other independent analyses found that white employees received higher average performance ratings and increases than employees of color and those working in close proximity to the Pentagon made more than those working farther away. Our years-long campaign paid off when congress finally passed a law to repeal it.
AFGE also won one of the most important legislative victories in our history: a governmentwide ban on the A-76 privatization process, which is still in effect today, after studies showed that agencies did not have reliable systems to track costs and savings from A-76 and that significant costs of conducting A-76 were ignored. Later that year, Obama issued governmentwide guidelines directing agencies to start the process of insourcing work.
In December 2009, Obama issued an executive order (EO) creating labor-management forums and increasing union involvement in agency operations.
Organizing continued to be an area of focus for AFGE since were only about 40% organized. AFGE established the AFGE Young Organizing Unionists for the Next Generation (YOUNG) program to recruit young members and build a pipeline for future leaders.
The Great Recession and the Great Attacks on federal workers
AFGE appeared to be moving full speed ahead only to be halted by the impact of the Great Recession. Between Feb. 2008 and Feb. 2010, about 8.7 million jobs disappeared. The recession was a result of allowing Wall Street to write their own rules with little or no regulations. Predatory lending and unregulated activities of investment bankers led to the collapse of the financial sector, the worst economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In 2009, tension ran high as many people were still angry at the Bush administration and Congress’ actions to bail out the big banks and underwater homeowners through the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Obamacare passed in 2010 and the Tea Party led by the Koch Brothers burst into view. The billionaires went all in to fund a massive web of secretive and public groups whose mission was to derail the new law and lay a foundation to pick apart the whole government piece by piece along with anyone who stood in their way of accomplishing these goals. And they succeeded. Democrats lost 63 seats in the House and 6 seats in the Senate in the midterm elections. Several Republican candidates endorsed by the Tea Party won their races. On the campaign trail, federal pay had become an issue with Republican candidates who claimed feds were paid way too much, ignoring the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ findings that feds were actually underpaid by 35% compared to their private sector counterparts.
Pressured by calls to cut spending, Obama proposed a pay freeze for federal workers for 2011 and 2012, which AFGE condemned, along with other cuts. Republican lawmakers embraced the pay freeze and passed legislation to implement it. Republicans also used the budget deficit as an excuse to slash government programs even though the deficit was mainly a result of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the financial meltdown caused by unregulated Wall Street.
The anti-government forces started a misinformation campaign against government programs and employees. Attacks came in various forms – a bill that would do away with official time by Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia. This marks the first opening salvo of the years-long campaign to destroy unions through official time.
Hardline conservatives moved on to scapegoat federal workers using the debt ceiling as an excuse. Conservatives refused to raise the debt ceiling, which is a common practice as it allows the government to pay for things Congress has already approved, not new spending. Republicans turned the routine into a crisis and the US was on the brink of default when both sides agreed on a compromise – the budget Control Act of 2011 which would later trigger a devastating across the board cut known as sequestration in which more than 770,000 feds would be furloughed without pay in 2013.
But there was a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy year. TSA administrator granted TSOs limited bargaining rights. AFGE later won a union election to represent TSOs, and AFGE and TSA signed the historic first contract in 2012, changing the life of tens of thousands TSOs and their families.
AFGE National President John Gage, who presided over AFGE’s victory at TSA, decided to retire after nine years at the helm of AFGE. Then National Secretary-Treasurer J. David Cox Sr. was elected national president at the union’s convention. His first challenge was to change the anti-government narrative and push back on unprecedented attacks on federal workers’ pay and benefits.
Then came the 2012 presidential election. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had embraced cuts to federal employee pay, benefits, and jobs with budget-slashing cheerleader Paul Ryan as his running mate. Obama was never perfect for AFGE on every issue, but the choice was clear. AFGE and allies mobilized activists across the country. On Nov. 6, Obama was re-elected for his second term.
The furloughs and the shutdown
Obama didn’t have time to celebrate as Washington would soon be embroiled in the “fiscal cliff” debate over a series of tax increases and spending cuts while sequestration was also scheduled to take effect. After much deliberation and hesitation, lawmakers reached a deal that would soften the blow. Sequestration cuts were reduced from $109 billion to $85 billion, for example. But that meant more than 770,000 federal workers were furloughed without pay in 2013. For many employees, that meant a pay cut of 20% a week for 6 weeks. Government services to the American people were also cut.
AFGE took to the streets in over 100 cities, and several agencies started to reduce their furlough days or dropped their furlough plans altogether.
But the madness didn’t end there. Republicans threatened to shut down the government if the spending bills did not include measures defunding Obamacare. To appease their base, they ignored the impact of a government shutdown on ordinary American people and closed the government on Oct. 1. This manufactured crisis locked 800,000 federal workers out of their workplaces. Over 1 million were forced to work without pay. AFGE again took to the streets in more than 230 rallies across the country to protest the lock out. On Oct. 16, the shutdown ended. Congress’s self-inflicted shutdown of 16 days cost the economy $24 million.
To stop this madness, hundreds of AFGE leaders met and came up with a new strategy called Big Enough to Win that would make AFGE bigger and stronger with a bigger political clout as soon as possible.
The only bright spot in 2013 was Obama’s executive order ending the three-year pay freeze and gave federal workers a 1% raise for 2014 thanks to pressure from AFGE.
An era of growth
After five years of fighting back against the anti-government forces, AFGE made serious inroads on the organizing front. For the first time in our union’s history, AFGE’s membership reached a record high of 300,000 in 2015. Another big win in 2015 was a bill eliminating a 10% penalty for law enforcement officers who withdrew their retirement savings early.
In 2015, AFGE launched two important programs: AFGE Retirees, to recruit retirees so they stay active in the union after retirement, and AFGE Veterans, which brings together AFGE members who are veterans to speak out on issues that are important to them.
But a dent in an otherwise good year were the data breaches at OPM. About 4.2 million current and former federal employees and 21.5 million individuals including 19.7 million job applicants had their most personal and sensitive information stolen from OPM in one of the largest cyberattacks in U.S. history. AFGE demanded that OPM provide lifetime credit monitoring and liability insurance. We also filed a class action lawsuit against OPM officials for failing to heed warnings and obey security policies. Weeks later, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta resigned.
A Nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue
Donald Trump was elected in 2016. With him in the White House and Republicans retaining control of Congress, federal employees braced themselves for an onslaught in 2017 and beyond.
Three days after taking office, Trump issued a governmentwide hiring freeze. He “lifted” it a few months later but also told agencies they needed to shed their workforces as part of their organizing efforts.
Next, Trump started filling his cabinet positions with individuals who had spent their entire careers trying to take down the agencies they were appointed to lead. Environment Protection Agency Scott Pruitt, for example, spent years suing the EPA on behalf of oil and gas companies. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos built her entire career on destroying public schools. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price spent years railing against Obamacare.
Trump followed up with his first budget proposal that would bleed most agencies dry. He also cancelled labor-management forums created by Obama.
Not to be outdone by Trump, anti-government politicians kicked off 2017 by trying to gut the civil service and employees’ workplace rights, pay, and benefits. They introduced several pieces of legislation to gut official time and the union’s ability to represent workers.
The onslaught against the civil service and its workforce intensified in 2018. But first, Congress’ failure to do its job brought another government shutdown. Only three weeks into the new year Congress shut down the government for three days, this time over immigration policy. AFGE members got lawmakers to pass a bill ensuring they would receive back pay for the duration of the shutdown.
In an unprecedented attack on federal employees, Trump in May 2018 issued 3 executive orders that sought to wipe out unions and gut workplace protections for federal employees. Three days later, AFGE filed our first lawsuit challenging the EO on official time. A few weeks later we filed our second lawsuit challenging two other EOs. These 3 EOs clearly exceeded the current laws and the president’s authority under the US Constitution.
As we fought the EOs in court, several agencies started implementing them by kicking union reps out of offices and prohibiting us from using computers or telephones. AFGE launched our Red for Feds campaign with 65 rallies to protest the EOs.
Trump intensified his attack on the federal workforce. In their 2019 budget proposal, the Trump administration wanted to replace the GS system with a notorious subject “pay for performance” scheme. They advocated eliminating the traditional pension plan and turning federal employees’ health care system into a voucher program. They pushed to eliminate due process rights for all federal workers turning the civil service into the former spoils system in which they could fire any workers they didn’t like.
One of the most vicious attacks took place at the Department of Education where management threw out the contract and replaced it with an anti-union directive that stripped 3,900 AFGE-represented workers of all previously negotiated rights and protections.
The administration also turned the traditionally independent Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) into an anti-work tool. The FLRA, for example, issued policies that allowed the administration to rewrite union contracts. The FLRA’s Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP), which resolves impasses in contract negotiations, repeatedly ruled against our union under this administration.
A leaked White House memo outlined President Trump’s plans to purge government unions and end collective bargaining in the federal government.
Like that was not enough, Trump also shut down large portions of the government on Dec. 22, 2018 after refusing to back down from his demand that Congress give him $5 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. 800,000 federal employees were forced to either work without pay or stay home without pay.
AFGE and allies took to the streets and demanded that the president and Congress come to an agreement and re-open the government. Several AFGE locals set up temporary food banks to help feds who were going without pay. TSA officers who had been working without pay began to call in sick – many because they needed to find a job that would provide immediate paychecks. Air traffic controllers started calling in sick too, creating chaos at airports. Trump relented and re-opened the shut-down agencies. The shutdown lasted 35 days, the longest in history.
Then COVID-19 hit. AFGE at all levels immediately sprang into action to save our members’ lives as the deadly virus came to our shores and began its killing spree. We demanded personal protective equipment (PPE) for government workers, and when the government failed to do that, we scouted stores buying our own masks and hand sanitizer, made our own cloth masks, while taking to the streets to shine the spotlight on the administration’s unpreparedness and refusal to take the virus seriously.
Despite these challenges, we won some victories, the most notable of which was paid parental leave. Congress in 2019 passed a bill that gave two million federal workers 12 weeks of paid parental leave available to both new mothers and fathers and adoptive parents. The new benefit took effect Oct. 1, 2020.
Hope, Part 2
AFGE worked hard to get Joe Biden elected in 2020. Then presidential candidate Biden had promised federal workers he would repeal Trump’s devastating EOs and anti-worker policies. Biden won and spent the first few days in office doing just that.
He also directed federal agencies to reopen and renegotiate Trump-era contracts that have anti-worker provisions. He also removed all 10 members of the anti-worker FSIP, appointed new chair of the FLRA, and more. AFGE members breathed a collective sigh of relief. Four years of nightmares finally ended.
One of AFGE’s biggest accomplishments under Biden is winning more rights for TSA officers. The administration began to take steps to move Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) under the GS pay scale and give them workplace rights and protections similar to the majority of federal employees who work under Title 5. In order to make sure future administrations won’t take away these hard-earn rights, AFGE is working with members of Congress to codify these rights in law.
But just like what we have done during the previous administrations, we are not afraid to hold the Biden administration accountable. When the Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, continued to privatize health care for veterans, we spoke up and took the issue to Congress and successfully blocked a commission that would review closures of VA facilities.
We demanded sensible telework programs and safe re-entry of government workers into their physical offices. We continue to demand hazard pay for government workers working during COVID. Our lawsuit is pending.
AFGE is also working hard to rebuild our organizing program severely damaged by Trump’s anti-worker policies, among other things. As workers retire or leave the government, we will continue to educate a new generation of government employees about the power of joining together with their coworkers and having a collective voice on the job. As COVID-19 and other workplace safety issues have shown us, the difference between having and not having a union could be life and death.
Our mission over the past 90 years has not changed. Join us on our journey to make the government a better place to work as we stand by our values of solidarity, equality, and justice for all.
Missed the first three segments of the series? Read them here: