Loss of Power and Members Impacts Union Solidarity

In recent years, federal employee unions have evolved. While it was expected unions would take a stand on issues important to federal employees, it is necessary to work with both parties to achieve these goals. But, as the unions became more ardent supporters of the Democratic Party, they moved beyond taking positions on specific issues. Instead, they have become an adjunct to one political party and can be counted on to employ their resources (i.e. federal employees and their donations) to attack one major party and to elect the Democratic candidate.

The disadvantage of this approach should be obvious. If the civil service structure is supposed to be politically neutral, having the representatives of federal employees actively working in political campaigns to defeat the person who is or who may become the new leader of these employees is not a workable situation. No doubt, supporters of the winning side would like to reward their political friends and weaken their political enemies. That is human nature and government employees in some local jurisdictions know how much this system puts their jobs in jeopardy. With the weakening of the Hatch Act and increasing visibility in national elections, federal employee unions have placed federal employees as the poster children for one side of the political brawl that occurs every four years.

Several large unions have now withdrawn from the AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization of unions formed in 1955. One reason for the split: disagreement on the extent to which unions have become aligned with the Democratic Party. The unions leaving are reportedly taking with them four million members and about $28 million of the annual budget for the umbrella organization. They are also leaving with the AFL-CIO strategy in tatters: a majority of the House and Senate are controlled by Republicans as well as the White House.

The largest federal union, the American Federation of Government Employees, is a member of the AFL-CIO. AFGE is still a staunch supporter of the AFL-CIO leadership and is not one of the unions that has left the coalition.

One major reason for the dissatisfaction with union leadership is that the drive to the left of center and increasing close relationship with one political party has not gained new members. In the private sector, only 7.9% of employees are represented by unions. The high tide for union membership was about 35% in 1954. Polls indicate that union members do not uniformly vote for one party so the time, energy and money spent by unions in support of one party does not coincide with the views of a sizable percentage of the people they represent. As a result, the actions taken by several AFL-CIO unions may ultimately strengthen the power of unions in American society if they choose to follow a different path on behalf of their members.

Federal employee unions have not fared well with their embrace of the Democratic Party either. For a number of years, OPM reported that the percentage of federal employees represented by unions was about 62%. Now, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, that figure has dropped to about 35% of the federal workforce.

John Mulholland was a national official for AFGE for a number of years who could deliver a speech with bluster and blarney the equal to any elected official. He gave numerous speeches arguing that federal employee unions needed a law to replace the executive order system because an executive order could be changed with the stroke of a pen and it took an Act of Congress to change a law. In effect, federal employees and federal employee unions would have more security once labor relations legislation was enacted.

John Mulholland was a bright guy and he was correct. But what he did not say, and what has happened, is that Congress will change the law if given enough incentive to do so. And federal employee unions have given politicians enough incentive to change the labor laws for federal employees.

Federal employees can count on unions to take a stand against most new policies initiated by the Bush Administration. Unfortunately, because of their close alignment with one political party, there is always doubt as to whether the union's actions are based on political considerations or what may be best for the majority of the federal workforce.

It may be coincidental that legislation creating new federal agencies has resulted in significant loss of power for federal unions. Employees of the Departments of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense will soon be under much different personnel systems and, if there is a union representing them, their power to effect change will be significantly less than it was several years ago. Federal employees will have new and less effective appeal rights. The pay structure for these employees will also be changed. If the comments in various articles by FedSmith.com are any indication, these changes are, to put it mildly, not warmly embraced by federal employees.

A few million members of the AFL-CIO have apparently had enough of their representatives embracing one political party and spending money on political campaigns instead of recruiting new members or in other ways that may benefit members. Federal employee unions have not followed this lead but will apparently continue to follow the same path that has led to a 50% decline in numbers of represented employees and a corresponding loss of power for their organizations.

It may very well be that the continued political activity by unions will reward union leaders handsomely in 2009 if a Democrat becomes President and the House and Senate also return to control of the Democrats. Or, alternatively, their power may continue to decline along with membership if the trends of the last few elections continue. In either case, the elected representatives of federal employees are putting "civil servants" on a track of decreasing job security and increasing turbulence in a workforce that exists to help implement the policies of the administration elected by the American people--without regard to political affiliation.


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
> Published on: 08/09/05
U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss said Monday he is working on a compromise with the Transportation Security Administration over its plan to cut more than 300 screener positions at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, said he has had three meetings with TSA officials on the subject, with another one scheduled for today. After a tour of the airport, he reiterated that the TSA's plan to cut screeners in Atlanta is "simply unacceptable."
Neither Chambliss nor airport General Manager Ben DeCosta would say what is the ideal size of a security staff for the world's busiest airport in passenger volume. But they said lines should be kept to a minimum.
Travelers should not have to stand in line for more than 20 minutes during peak times, Chambliss said.
In July, wait times frequently stretched to 40 minutes or longer.
The TSA has promised that it can boost its efficiency in Atlanta and will hire more part-timers. However, the agency has had trouble hiring part-timers in the past, DeCosta said.
He said he hopes to get a fuller explanation today of how the TSA plans to become more efficient.
"The TSA needs to increase its credibility with Congress and the airports," DeCosta said.
Hartsfield-Jackson handled more than 7.7 million passengers in May — higher than the predicted 7.6 million — and more than 8 million in June.
DeCosta said that in June and July, only two of seven Mondays were fully staffed at peak hours starting at 6 a.m. He said that only 22 of the 28 security checkpoint lanes were open.
Unless the TSA ends its hiring freeze in Atlanta, DeCosta warned recently, "we wouldn't be adequately staffed for Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas."
TSA spokesman Christopher White said the number of airport screeners topped out at 1,400 last spring, and that over the next few months the TSA expects to reduce that to 1,061 through attrition.
The cutback is part of a broad staffing adjustment at many airports — some of which will end up with more staffing than before, and others with less — as the agency tries to work within a congressionally mandated employment ceiling.


Chambliss working toward compromise on TSA cuts

Associated Press
ATLANTA - U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss said he has been meeting with the Transportation Security Administration and is working on a compromise over its plan to cut more than 300 security screeners at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
After a tour of the airport Monday, Chambliss, R-Ga., said the TSA's current plan to reduce screeners is "simply unacceptable."
Travelers at the airport should not have to stand in line for more than 20 minutes during peak times, Chambliss said. In July, wait times often lasted 40 minutes or more.
The TSA says it can increase efficiency at the Atlanta airport and will hire more part-time workers. But the agency has had trouble hiring part-timers in the past, airport general manager Ben DeCosta said.
The airport saw more than 7.7 million passengers in May - higher than the predicted 7.6 million - and more than 8 million in June. Unless the TSA ends its hiring freeze in Atlanta, DeCosta has warned the airport will not be fully staffed for Labor Day, Thanksgiving or Christmas.
TSA spokesman Christopher White said the number of airport screeners topped out at 1,400 last spring, and that over the next few months the TSA expects to reduce that to 1,061 through attrition.
The cuts are part of a broad staffing adjustment at many airports. Some of the airports will end up with more staff than before, and others with less as the agency tries to work within a congressionally mandated employment ceiling.


On Pay for Performance, Rank-and-File Workers Speak Out Anonymously
By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, August 9, 2005; B02
The Diary's mailbag is stuffed -- with pay issues at the top of the heap.
Columns in late July explored some of the questions being asked by federal employees about pay-for-performance systems underway in the Bush administration. Today's column shares some additional comments from readers interested in how the government compensates and motivates its workforce.
From a federal lawyer who is returning to the private sector:
"I find the current system inflexible and unfair. . . . While my supervisors tout the fact that I have all this experience in senior level management, they don't acknowledge that where it counts -- in my wallet every two weeks.
"I find it unmotivating to get paid a set amount regardless of the quality of my work. . . .
"I've seen some behavior in my short time in the government that probably would have led to firing in the private sector. I leave my government job with greater respect for the work that people do for all of us for nominal pay. At the same time, I am quite disgusted with the waste of money by people who should have been fired long ago."
From a federal scientist:
"Right now, civil service employees are somewhat 'buffered' from politically motivated actions of top management. Employees can openly debate, disagree with the policies and proposed actions of their agencies (within limits, of course) without fear of losing salary (however, there are other ways that management gets even!).
". . . With 'pay for performance' I wonder if I should just please my boss rather than fight for what I believe is right. As a staff scientist, we get into debates all the time. Right now, I feel somewhat protected in these debates. . . . With pay for performance, I will need to balance feeding my family against fighting for the public interest.
"We'll see how I do. . . . I am not optimistic."
From a federal retiree:
"In my immediate organization we had two long-term employees that should have been fired because they did next to no work, leaving their assignments to be shifted to others. I clearly sensed the supervisor did not have the time available to sacrifice mission work in order to increase the priority on needed discipline.
"In a parallel organization I observed a supervisor apply hundreds of man hours needed to pass through all the wickets to terminate an employee -- time that could not be taken and which compromised the mission.
"I was not in a supervisory position but witnessed the bind leaders were being placed in when faced with the dilemma of increased administrative time encroaching into their primary duties of leading an organization and getting a job done. I am therefore puzzled as to how newly proposed performance pay systems that will require substantially more time to administer to employees can be in the best interests of the government? I am also puzzled as to why this is not more of an issue?"
From a new federal supervisor:
"A merit-based system may not be the magic cure to the problems that plague the government workforce, but at least it is something new. And it's not a far-fetched idea, but rather it is something that has been the norm in the private sector for a long time. Of course this makes people, including myself, nervous. Who are we kidding, job security is a hallmark of the government; but as long as job security isn't threatened for those doing their job, a correctly implemented merit-based system could be a very good thing."
A Note to Readers
As you may have noticed, none of the readers quoted above is identified. They gave permission for me to excerpt from their e-mails but not to identify them by name or by agency.
I verified that they are, indeed, government employees or a relatively recent retiree, using telephone numbers they gave me. They wanted to make their points but avoid rocking the boat, risking retribution or embarrassing their agencies.
That's understandable -- and unfortunate. The pay-for-performance debate is dominated by Bush administration officials and union leaders. What's missing is the voice of front-line employees -- the point of this column.
I'd like to get a conversation going on pay-for-performance and federal compensation, but if you've got something to say, you need from now on to identify yourself and permit at least your name to be published. It's the only way to get political appointees and labor leaders to take your views seriously.
Thank you.


Terror fears have not put damper on travel abroad

WASHINGTON - Terrorism overseas? No worries.

Americans are vacationing overseas in numbers that are expected to exceed the nearly 62 million who went abroad last year. Commerce Department statistics show that 38 percent of those going overseas in 2004 were vacationing, 33 percent were visiting friends or family and 22 percent were on business. A majority spent three weeks on their trips.

Top five destinations: Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Italy.

Expect to hear more about "market forces" when prices spike at the pump in the fall and spring. It happens when refineries make the biannual transitions into - and out of - producing winter heating oil, and the price spikes could worsen. Zeta Rosenberg of ICF Consulting, which follows the oil industry, says refinery closings and increasing demands for oil in Asia have left little margin for excess capacity. She projects a refinery "capacity crunch" will last for the next five to 10 years until new refineries come online.

Backpacking into the wilderness? Don't look for any amenities, says a federal judge, who nixed plans by the National Park Service to rebuild aged and collapsed shelters in alpine wilderness areas of Washington state's Olympic National Park. The Park Service said the three-sided shelters are safety measures for hikers stranded in unexpected snows, but U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess declared they're not allowed under the 1964 Wilderness Act, which declared that wilderness should remain wilderness.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the agency enforcing Hatch Act restrictions on federal employees' political activities, says e-mails sent from government computers can't contain political messages, even if they are only sent to relatives and friends. The counsel is trying to fire two Social Security Administration employees who spammed co-workers last year with pro-John Kerry messages.

The GOP is mapping out an all-out attack to unseat Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the eight-term godfather of Senate Democrats.

The election won't be held for 15 months, and West Virginia's mining traditions once made the state a Democratic stronghold. But the National Republican Senatorial Committee is unleashing TV ads attacking the 87-year-old's criticism of U.S. troops in Iraq. Byrd is responding with TV ads protesting that he's under assault by out-of-state interests. He's also inked an autobiography aimed at deflating the political issue of his former membership in the Ku Klux Klan. (He says it was a youthful mistake.)

Likely challenger: popular Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.


Article published Aug 9, 2005
$1 billion gap demands explanation, fix
Department of Veterans Affairs fails to serve its clients
Household budgets occasionally can fall short by a few dollars at the end of the month. That's understandable.
But a $1 billion shortfall by the Department of Veterans' Affairs for health-care funding? That's inexcusable.
Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado is correct to demand a nonpartisan Government Accounting Office investigation into how a "surprise $1 billion shortfall" occurred within the department. Salazar is a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced in late June that it had to borrow from its construction fund and next year's budget to make up for the loss. Acknowledging veterans' urgent needs, the Senate on July 29 approved an additional $1.5 billion in the Interior Appropriations Bill for the Department of Veterans Affairs for fiscal year 2006.
Salazar, along with other senators, wants to know not only how the gap occurred, but also how to prevent it in the future.
With a nation at war and 26.5 million veterans living in the United States, this error is unforgivable. Either the Department of Veterans Affairs is mismanaging its money or mismanaging its ability to project expenses for veterans' medical services. Either way, this government agency must be held accountable for the veterans it serves and for the taxpayers who foot the bill.
Veterans have given their service to the country. This nation, in turn, must fulfill its promises to provide them the medical care they need.

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