AFGE turned 83 on Tuesday. Throughout our history, AFGE has relied on the strength of our members and union leaders to increase membership, fight for equality in the workplace, and build our legislative power. Virtually every occupation in the private sector has a counterpart in government service. The key difference is the mission of government’s workers: their job is making America work for all Americans.
AFGE’s story is a story of perseverance and commitment.
When the union was chartered in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, it was a tough time to be a union. Up to 15 million people, about 20% of the population at the time, were unemployed. Over 9,000 banks either had closed or were closing their doors. Government employees were easy targets for austerity measures. Furloughs were the norm. Overtime pay was eliminated. Retirement-age employees were forced out of their jobs. If two members of the same family worked for the government, one had to be laid off before other workers during a reduction in force.
“It was about as inauspicious a time as could be imagined for a new organization to set out,” said former AFGE President James B. Burns.
But at the time when other unions hesitated to do anything at all, AFGE boldly called for restoration of pay for government employees. And we succeeded. Shortly after pay for government employees was restored, railroad employees received a pay increase. So did bakery workers and other workers. Observers noted that AFGE played a part in helping the economy recover as we set in motion demand for goods and products and put purchasing power to work.
That’s the spirit of AFGE.
AFGE has weathered many storms, and we’ve always landed on our feet. From being forced to publish our own disavowal of strikes in our newspaper on a weekly basis to winning a 15.9% raise for federal employees to make up for the raises held back during World War II. From being excluded from the 1935 Wagner Act that gave private-sector workers the right to bargain collectively to securing President Kennedy’s executive order mandating agency heads to negotiate agreements with the unions.
But that breakthrough was just the beginning of our fight for federal employees’ rights and protections. Modern-day threats come in the form of MaxHR and NSPS. We defeated both. They come in the form of a government shutdown and loss of pay, but we reopened the government and won back pay for our members. They also come in the form of whole sale privatization of government functions, but we succeeded in putting in place a ban against outsourcing federal jobs.
But in order for us to continue to fight for justice and workplace protections for government employees, we need to grow the membership and build our legislative power. We need to strengthen every local, standardize training and education for our activists, and expand our messaging capacity.
We need to do all of this today. There are corporate-funded members of Congress who not only want to harm our members but destroy AFGE once and for all. They want to eliminate basic collective bargaining rights that keep workplaces fair for government employees. They want to take away employees’ option to have their union dues deducted from their paychecks. And they are floating the idea of getting rid of the IRS union outright. Make no mistake, if they succeed, they will come after us next.
AFGE was born during the worst of times. But against all odds, we have achieved much and became the largest federal employee union in the country. This only goes to show that if we stand strong together, there is nothing that we can’t accomplish. Our founders and past union leaders fought for this union. We will fight to keep it. Let’s move AFGE forward to make it last another century. Let’s become Big Enough to Win!