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Remembering a Strong Advocate and Good Friend

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, August 27, 2009

RENO, Nev., Aug. 26 Federal employees lost a good friend when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) died Tuesday night.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, recalled a man who was "visible and upfront in his recognition of federal employees."

When he spoke to the organization's rallies and legislative conferences, his remarks "were from his heart and from knowledge that he had about the work that they did," Kelley said. "It was never a scripted speech that he read. . . . You could see the passion that he had for federal employees, for the country and for the work federal employees did for the country."

From a long list of federal workplace issues that Kennedy advocated, Kelley made particular note of his efforts to fight plans by the George W. Bush administration to have outside contractors do government work.

"He believed first and foremost that the work of the federal government could best be done by federal employees and [they] needed to be supported in the work they were trying to do. So, his work against privatization of federal work, I would say his fingerprints are all over that," Kelley said.

Among the federal workplace issues that Kennedy advocated, the employees union cited:

-- His call for Department of Homeland Security staffers to have full collective bargaining rights.

-- His demand for a return of collective bargaining rights to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives employees.

-- His effort to save jobs at an Internal Revenue Service facility in Andover, Mass.

-- His push to end the IRS's use of private tax collectors.

Fredric V. Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, praised Kennedy's role in winning Hatch Act provisions that permitted all federal employees a greater role in the nation's political process.

"Throughout his Senate career, Senator Kennedy was at the forefront in working with our union on many of the critical issues important not only to postal employees but to the U.S. Postal Service itself," Rolando said. "These included advancing budgetary legislation that facilitated an efficient, universal postal system to serve all Americans, and also ensuring that postal employees received wages, benefits and a workplace environment that they deserved."

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said, "Senator Kennedy was a true champion for America's civil servants. He understood us because he was one of us -- a public servant."

While Kennedy became legendary for his oratory and legislative work, his wit and down-to-earth personality also impressed federal labor leaders.

Bud Taylor, a former president of the National Federation of Federal Employees local for Defense Department and Homeland Security workers in New England, was close to Kennedy and fondly remembers a meeting with him in early 2003. Kennedy was kidding with Taylor while autographing photographs just off the Senate floor and the whole thing was captured on videotape.

Taylor said that when his then 8-year-old daughter, Morgan, saw the tape, she blurted out: " 'Hey, he sounds just like the mayor on the Simpsons!' " Taylor said he told that story about the cartoon character to Kennedy and he thought it was hysterical. "I get that a lot," Kennedy told Taylor.

At the American Federation of Government Employees convention here in Reno, union President John Gage also recalled a leader who was thought of as part of America's political royalty, but who also was personable and gracious and always ready to fight for federal workers.

"He was there, time and again, to offer amendments to stop the unconscionable contracting out of their jobs, and to lead the opposition to efforts to eliminate their civil service protections and collective bargaining rights. And Transportation Security Officers are well aware of his constant and unyielding effort to establish their collective bargaining rights for the first time," Gage said in a statement.

But more than that, Gage recalled a good friend. Between sessions at the AFGE convention here, he spoke of the times he picked up the phone and heard, "John, it's Teddy." The calls came to congratulate Gage when he won his first term as union president, when the union endorsed Barack Obama's White House bid and when the labor movement suffered setbacks. "He was the first to call or write after a victory or a loss, whether professional or personal," the statement said.

At times of setback, Kennedy remained optimistic, Gage added in the interview. He'd say: "Don't worry, we're coming back, John. Don't worry, we're coming back,' " Gage recalled.

William A. Brown Sr., president of the African American Federal Executive Association, had this final Kennedy tribute: "He was the ultimate public servant."

But Sen. Kennedy won't be "coming back" this time.

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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