Throughout labor history, nothing has been given to us freely without us having to demand and, often, fight for it. That’s why having a union is so important. Our voice as an individual is not as loud as our collective voice. Together, we can achieve the unachievable.
This Labor Day, we’d like to honor AFGE leaders, activists, and members past and present whose contributions and hard work, often behind the scenes, have improved our lives and changed the course of history.
AFGE turned 90 this year, and we have so many accomplishments to be proud of. At AFGE, every day is Labor Day, and we hope you join us in our fight to make the federal and D.C. governments better places to work.
Here are some of AFGE’s most important historical achievements:
- Union recognition during the Kennedy administration
When AFGE was born in 1932, federal workers didn’t even have collective bargaining rights. But we 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 to develop standards of conduct for agencies. Kennedy’s EO opened the doors to AFGE organizing around the country.
- Collective bargaining rights codified in law
Building on JFK’s EO, AFGE kept pushing for more rights for federal workers. Under the leadership of AFGE President Kenneth Blaylock, AFGE in 1978 secured 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.
This legislation has been credited with saving the union and workers’ rights during anti-worker administrations seeking to destroy unions and take away bargaining rights.
- Subsidized health insurance program, improved retirement benefits
AFGE secured passage 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.
In 1969, AFGE members lobbied for and won improved retirement benefits, including a formula based on the 3 highest consecutive years of service, which is still in use today. We continue to fight efforts to undermine workers’ hard-earned retirement benefits.
- A governmentwide ban on A-76 privatization process
In 2009, AFGE 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, President Obama issued governmentwide guidelines directing agencies to start the process of insourcing work.
- Defeating NSPS, MaxHr, and other attempts to undermine the civil service
The George W. Bush administration tried hard to undermine the civil service and merit systems. They tried to eliminate collective bargaining rights and reduce federal workers’ salaries at the newly created Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. We took to the streets, went to court, pressured Congress, and did everything we could to roll back the ill-conceived systems. It took years to finally defeat them, but we did it.
- Hatch Act reform
AFGE also succeeded in persuading President Bill Clinton to sign off on Hatch Act reform, a bill that AFGE had demanded for decades. 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.
- Bargaining rights for TSA officers
From being completely at the whims of their managers, TSA officers have come a long way in terms of workers’ rights and protections, and AFGE was there from the very beginning. Change takes time, but AFGE and TSA officers kept at it, and finally the TSA administrator under the Obama administration granted the officers 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.
We continued to press for full bargaining rights, and for the first time, a president embraced AFGE’s call for Title 5 rights for TSA officers. Under the leadership of President Joe Biden, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last year directed TSA administrator David Pekoske to issue a new determination that will give TSOs more workplace rights and give them a pay boost consistent with the General Schedule system, which covers most federal workers. We are working with Congress to codify these rights into law so no future presidents can take them away.
In addition, both the House and Senate 2023 appropriations bills include funding to move TSA to a General Schedule-like pay system, which will result in roughly a 30% pay increase for most TSA officers.
- Guaranteed back pay after a government shutdown
A government shutdown is a bad idea for government workers who are either furloughed or have to work without pay, and the American people who rely on the services these employees provide. AFGE opposes all the shutdowns, and during the longest government shutdown in history in 2018 and 2019, AFGE won passage of a bill that ensured government workers get paid automatically at the end of any shutdown.