September 18, 2023
AFGE is urging members of Congress not to repeat the same mistakes they made a few years ago.
This is the third segment of AFGE’s 4-part series: AFGE at 90: How AFGE members have beaten the odds for nearly a century
AFGE ushered in the 70s with both accomplishments and challenges. After AFGE President John Griner endorsed President Richard Nixon for re-election in exchange for his support for the Wage Grade bill, which became law in 1972 providing unprecedented pay increases for blue-collar workers, Griner paid the price for strong leadership as newly established vice presidents fought against him for more power of their own.
Griner was reelected, but delegates voted down any dues increase for two years and other resolutions that required funding. They also abolished the crucial National Organizing Department, which had been responsible for the unprecedented growth of the union. With the organizing program destroyed by the convention in a power struggle with national vice presidents, the union began its membership slide that would continue for two decades.
At the same time, other unions were nibbling at the edges of AFGE trying to take it down with decertification elections. AFGE responded by consolidating small units into large national bargaining units and demanding national agency agreements. These agreements protected workers more consistently and allowed the union to address issues that cut across entire agencies.
During the late 1970s and through the 1980s, AFGE grew from five national executive agreements to 34 and fought to provide better service, better contracts and membership campaigns. The national bargaining councils that grew out of these agreements became a key to the union’s success, but it would be years before AFGE could reap the benefits of the foundation laid by these councils.
In 1976, Kenneth Blaylock, who had been serving as District 5 national vice president, was elected national president. Blaylock was burdened with falling membership and a government workforce that had been hired after the union had been established in their workplaces. This generation of local leaders resisted the idea of organizing, and once removed from the original organizing drives, looked to union staff to solve workplace problems. He struggled to rebuild an organizing program.
But under his leadership, AFGE secured one of our greatest accomplishments ever in 1978 – passage of the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA), which codified federal workers’ collective bargaining rights instead of having to rely on presidential directives, which could be taken away with the stroke of a president’s pen.
CSRA created three new agencies: the Office of Personnel Management, which manages and oversees personnel issues; the Merit Systems Protection Board, which protects the merit system by giving federal workers a means to appeal adverse actions such as demotion and removal; and the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which oversees federal labor-management relations including resolving labor-management disputes. The law also created guidelines for personnel removal and created the Senior Executive Service, a separate corps of executives above the GS-15 level.
But Blaylock’s support for the bill came at great political risk to him as some AFGE members were concerned that the act gave more flexibility to managers. AFGE initially opposed CSRA but came around after labor-management relations provisions were added.
Blaylock’s wisdom in supporting the legislation became evident when Ronald Reagan and subsequent anti-worker presidents tried to destroy unions and take away workers’ bargaining rights. CSRA protected members’ rights and quite possibly saved the union.
Brutal years ahead
The Reagan administration was problematic for federal workers from the start. His slogan “government is the problem” perfectly projected what was to come and summed up his relationship with the federal workforce.
His first move against organized labor was the 1981 firing of 11,000 striking federal air traffic controllers who were calling for better working conditions. Reagan permanently replaced them, sending a message to employers everywhere that it was open season on unions.
To protest Reagan’s new and most vicious policies toward labor, more than a half-million union workers including 6,000 AFGE members turned out for the Solidarity Day March.
Under Reagan’s leadership, Congress passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings “balanced budget amendment” which annihilated social service budgets across the country. Bottom-rung federal government workers suffered pay freezes that set them back for the next two decades.
Reagan also proposed ending the federal pension, forcing federal employees to rely solely on Social Security. AFGE led the fight with a coalition of unions to create the Federal Employees Retirement System we know today as the replacement for the Civil Service Retirement System, which Reagan was successful in ending.
Reagan expanded privatization of federal jobs and weakened workplace safety. Under his leadership, more and more Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations became mere recommendations.
In 1986, the president instituted random drug testing of all federal workers as part of his War on Drugs. AFGE fought the executive order with lawsuits and attacked the order as a hysterical response to a problem that didn’t exist. The union was successful in getting testing cut back to select positions in transportation and similar jobs.
There was another fire to put out that year. At the time, AFGE was losing 1,000 members a month due to insufficient organizing throughout the union. Blaylock sought to expand the successful Lunch and Learn membership building program that began in Local 1923. Lunch and Learns started out as simple gatherings of members and potential members about important issues. They would later become an important organizing tool for our union to talk to federal workers about their rights on the job and recruit new members. It would help us turn the corner membership-wise.
A tale of two presidents
AFGE elected a new president in 1988: John Sturdivant who had served as executive vice president under Blaylock. That same year, George H.W. Bush was elected President of the United States.
Under George H.W. Bush, there was an effort to scrap national pay comparability with the private sector and move to matching pay for each job in a local market using private pay data purchased from private companies. AFGE was able to blunt that effort and instead forge the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 that gave federal employees both a national raise and an additional raise, if applicable, based on higher wage markets in certain localities. AFGE also preserved the reliable Bureau of Labor Statistics as the collector of wage comparison data.
The following year, AFGE and our allies were able to pass key amendments to the Civil Rights Act. For the first time, federal workers who suffered discrimination had a right to a jury trial and compensatory damage.
The next few years AFGE added 7,300 workers to its rolls using Lunch and Learns and the revived Bonus Bucks incentive program. By 1991, that effort brought to an end the union’s two decades of decline in membership.
As the cold war came to an end, thousands of federal workers were being laid off. AFGE lobbied and won a $25,000 buyout, job training, extended health benefits and more for the affected workers.
A new era with a mixed bag
The 12 years of Republican reign came to an end with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. But the change proved to be a mixed bag for federal workers.
For example, Clinton’s National Performance Review, which sought to change the way the government worked, threatened to scapegoat federal workers for inefficiencies caused by poor management.
Under the leadership of AFGE President Sturdivant, the union responded by seeking and winning an executive order promoting new labor-management partnerships that would give federal workers a professional voice in the operations of their workplaces. Besides creating the partnership council at the national level to advise the president on labor-management issues, agencies were required to form labor-management partnerships to involve workers and their unions as full partners to identify problems and come up with solutions to better serve the American people. These partnerships improved the quality of services while reducing the number of grievances and unfair labor practices.
AFGE also succeeded in persuading Clinton to sign off on Hatch Act reform, a bill that AFGE had demanded for decades and that George H. W. Bush had vetoed.
The original Hatch Act had intimidated the average federal worker into nonparticipation in America’s electoral process, in practice eliminating millions of Americans from politics for fear of being “Hatched.” The new law allowed federal employees to engage in partisan political activities during off-duty hours so that they can exercise their democratic rights as American citizens -- for the first time in over 50 years. It also allowed federal workers to be candidates in nonpartisan elections, register voters, give voters rides to the polls, work the polls on behalf of candidates, and more.
Privatization remained and grew as a threat under Clinton. AFGE set up training programs for local leaders to spot and response to privatization efforts early on. AFGE also started employing a new tactic: follow the work into the private sector.
In 1993, the government shut down Newark Air Force Base in Newark, Ohio. As contractors Rockwell and Wyle Laboratories took over the base, local union leaders petitioned for representation under the National Labor Relations Board, the private sector labor board, and won.
Contract on America
In 1994 Republicans swept into Congress with a vengeance, announcing their Contract with America – or rather Contract on America – to be more precise, that would tear apart the social safety nets, slash taxes for the wealthiest Americans and change the way government functioned. The Christian Coalition, a major supporter of conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, helped lead the way using rhetoric like “family values” to slash federal programs for unwed mothers and the poor.
Rhetoric against the government intensified, and that could be partially blamed for what happened in 1955 when American born and bred terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichol bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people including women, injuring 800 more.
Sixteen SSA workers and 35 HUD workers represented by AFGE died that day. AFGE immediately established a relief fund for families raising more than $400,000 within weeks of the bombing. Once the families were cared for, AFGE turned the fund into a permanent Fund for Emergency Disaster Support for future natural or man-made disasters.
Also that year, the showdown between Republicans and Clinton culminated in the first government shutdown ever. The first shutdown over budget lasted 5 days and the next one lasted 21 days. AFGE staged protests to put the spotlight on the work of federal workers and how emergency personnel reported to work without the promise of pay. The standoff ended when Congress backed down.
AFGE had been working hard to rebuild. In 1994, despite drastic downsizing of the Department of Defense, the union was able to announce the first net gain in membership in more than two decades.
As the union grew in strength, the D.C. government was facing financial crisis. The workers suffered a series of furloughs and the threat of a 12% pay cut due to a looming $70 million deficit. The D.C. government was eventually placed under a special Financial Control Board impacting AFGE contracts for D.C. workers. AFGE fought to get those contracts reinstated and won back raises for D.C. workers.
During the 1990s, AFGE won significant legal cases worth millions of dollars in awards for AFGE members. Enforcement of the Fair Labor Standard Act resulted in massive backpay awards across a number of agencies. SSA employees received more than $450 million, VA more than $3 million, BOP more than $200 million, Immigration and Naturalization Service workers received $140 million. Overtime violations resulted in another $35 million for midlevel workers in DOL, SSA, and DoD.
In 1997, AFGE went online with its first webpage. Most members still had limited access to the internet at home, but they were gaining access at work. As email grew popular, AFGE collected email addresses from members and developed legislative updates and alerts to educate and mobilize members at a moment’s notice. It was the beginning of our digital communications program.
Next week in the final segment of the series, we’ll explore George W. Bush’s attempt to gut core civil service protections through new personnel systems like NSPS, his plan to privatize hundreds of thousands of inherently governmental jobs, and the worst attacks on government workers and their unions in history by Donald J. Trump.
AFGE is urging members of Congress not to repeat the same mistakes they made a few years ago.
A week of Veteran Employee Recognition activities is held at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center.
The seventh episode of AFGE’s new series, The Activist, highlighting our union members who have stepped up to help make a difference in the lives of their colleagues and our government.