SEATTLE — Ultimately, the recent defeat in the nation’s largest federal union organizing campaign didn’t matter.
And an opponent’s claim that Colleen M. Kelley didn’t communicate enough with union leaders simply didn’t make a dent in her broad support.
Kelley’s victory, with 86 percent of the vote, gives her a strong mandate to represent members and workers in 31 federal agencies. She’ll need that mandate and more as NTEU and other employee organizations confront one of the most difficult periods facing the federal workforce in recent history.
The government’s budget deficit, the national debt and now one firm’s downgrading of Uncle Sam’s credit rating affect all Americans but hit federal workers particularly hard. They already are in the midst of a two-year pay freeze, and the country’s financial crisis means government employees can expect additional hits.
But while Kelley firmly rejects any more sacrifices by current federal employees, she’s open to proposals that could mean a less generous package for those yet to be hired.
Current employees “are entitled to the terms and conditions of employment that they came on board with,” she said shortly after winning her fourth term as president at the NTEU convention in Seattle. But on reducing the retirement plan for new hires, for example, “I think that’s a different conversation. I’m not sure I agree that it should happen . . . but I think that’s a different conversation than current employees.”
She told delegates that NTEU “will be carefully monitoring the work of the Super Committee,” the congressional panel charged with developing debt-reduction plans, and is preparing for “a hard fight ahead of us as we work to protect federal retirement, pay and health-care benefits.”
Just how current workers might be hit is “still unclear” Kelley said. “Too often in these kinds of situations, it is too easy . . . to use them as a way to balance the formula.”
There are many formulas for solving the nation’s financial problems, and lots of them have a minus sign in front of federal employees. Extending the pay freeze, decreasing retirement benefits and furloughs are some of the proposals.
These plans and the government’s shaky financial situation create stressful uncertainty for the workforce that leaves it with an “overall sense of worry and fear,” said John T. Kelshaw, president of NTEU Chapter 60 in Springfield, N.J.
The legislative and other proposals make public service, “which was once revered and respected,” Kelshaw said, “now seem like it is something you should be ashamed of.”
Debra Carter, a NTEU chapter president from Detroit, said that “the people we work for need to understand” that federal workers have home, car and school bills like everyone else.
“We work hard every day, so we can support our families, we can support our country,” she said. Yet many people “think we make all kinds of money and we don’t do any work.”
Kelley handily won reelection despite leading NTEU to a painful defeat in the largest federal organizing campaign in history. The American Federation of Government Employees narrowly won the right to represent about 44,000 Transportation Security Administration baggage screeners in June.
“Hundreds of NTEU leaders — many in this room — were involved in this effort to educate and organize TSA employees about the value of collective bargaining and union representation,” she told delegates, “and I do not apologize to anyone for the decisions that we made.”
Her margin of victory made mincemeat out of Walker’s claim that she was out of touch with chapter leaders, many of whom are the convention delegates who overwhelmingly voted for her.
Walker said he was “a little surprised” by the margin of his defeat in his second attempt to oust Kelley but added: “We’re happy that we are able to air our issues and give people a choice.”
When the vote was announced, Kelley was sitting in the back of the Westin Hotel ballroom, where union delegates were debating routine motions. She stood and waved as they gave her a standing ovation and then hugged her family as the delegates dutifully returned to regular union business.
Increasingly, that business means challenging proposals that would hit federal employees in their wallets.
“When the new Congress came to town, many lawmakers wasted no time in letting us know they had little respect for federal workers,” she told the convention before the vote. “Well, I have news for them: While we will gladly work with anyone who will work with us, when we cannot — when ideology overwhelms common sense and respect for workers — we will go under, over, around or through those who will not work with us.”
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