White House Doors Finally Open to Federal Unions

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

After being shut out for eight years, the leaders of federal employee unions felt good to be among those invited into the fold by the new administration.

"Welcome back to the White House," Vice President Biden told a group of labor leaders who gathered in the East Room on Friday. They were there to meet with President Obama and Biden and to witness the signing of executive orders affecting federal contractors and the announcement of the formation of the Task Force on Middle Class Working Families.

After the meeting, the group moved to the Blue Room, where the boss-in-chief spoke with each union boss individually. That kind of thing simply did not happen under President George W. Bush.

"Never" is the way Colleen M. Kelley, 10-year president of the National Treasury Employees Union, put it. "I never, ever was invited to meet with the president, and I never did in eight years."

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said it was his first time in the White House, but he doesn't expect it to be the last.

"It's a pretty heady time for federal workers," he said. "It's certainly a coming out of the wilderness."

The meeting with the president represents a clean break with the Bush administration's attitude toward labor in general and federal employee unions in particular. Curiously, however, the White House would not provide the names of those who attended the meeting. "We do not have a list of the individuals that were in attendance at Friday's event for release," reads an e-mail from the White House. That doesn't seem consistent with the transparency this administration brags about.

But that's a detail that probably bothers reporters more than the chosen ones invited to share space with the president.

"We appreciate the dedication of this administration to reverse the anti-labor and anti-worker policies that have been in place the last eight years," Gage said. Lots of grizzled labor leaders said they hadn't heard the word "union" mentioned by a president so much since Franklin D. Roosevelt, he added.

Of course, with all the support that unions, including those Gage and Kelley lead, gave Obama during the presidential campaign, they would be in a major funk if he didn't return the favor. Yet, they don't expect the administration to say "how high" when the unions want it to jump.

"I think it will be a positive one," Kelley said of the relationship federal unions are developing with the White House. Obama "has made very clear his recognition of the important work federal employees do. . . . That doesn't mean we're going to agree on everything."

Although the White House would not say who was there, it did release a transcript of the signing ceremony. The transcript indicates that the labor leaders applauded Obama when he said: "We have to reverse many of the policies towards organized labor that we've seen these last eight years, policies with which I've sharply disagreed. I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem; to me it's part of the solution."

That was reflected in the executive orders he signed. They don't deal with federal employees directly, but they do further define the relationship between Uncle Sam and outside contractors and their employees, on which the government relies more and more.

"One of these orders is going to prevent taxpayer dollars from going to reimburse federal contractors who spend money trying to influence the formation of unions," Obama said shortly before he signed the documents. "We will also require that federal contractors inform their employees of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Federal labor laws encourage collective bargaining, and employees should know their rights to avoid disruption of federal contracts.

"And I'm issuing an order so that qualified employees will be able to keep their jobs even when a contract changes hands. We shouldn't deprive the government of these workers who have so much experience in making government work."

The president of the association that represents federal contractors said Obama's orders "by and large are consistent" with the way contractors have been operating. As long as Obama provides "reasonable flexibility," said Stan Z. Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, his group is not uncomfortable with the administration's new approach.

Kelley said the executive orders represent the first step in what she hopes will be a complete review of federal contracting. Another part of that review will come from the ad hoc Senate subcommittee on contracting that Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, announced last week.

Soloway also welcomes these examinations of federal contracting.

"There's an awful lot of mythology" about contracting, he said. "Getting the facts can be beneficial to everybody."

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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