Federal Diary: Federal Worker Union Leader Dings Obama for Promoting 'Pay-for-Performance'

By Joe Davidson
Friday, August 28, 2009

RENO, Nev., Aug. 27 John Gage was reelected president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, at its convention here this week. He learned about union organizing growing up in a steelworker family in Pittsburgh, and he played with the Baltimore Orioles before becoming a disability examiner at the Baltimore headquarters of the Social Security Administration in 1973.

He joined the union and soon become editor of the local's newspaper. Gage was elected president of the local, the union's largest, in 1980 and was first elected national president in 2003. Gage, 62, still lives in Baltimore and commutes to AFGE's national office in downtown Washington. He takes pride in helping AFGE grow from what he said were 191,000 members in 2000 to 243,000 today, including 30,000 who joined in the past three years.

He talked with the Federal Diary as he began his third term Thursday. The conversation quickly turned to the Obama administration's performance. He's a big fan of President Obama and considers him the nation's "most pro-worker president."

"I think he really respects working people," Gage said. "It just oozes from him, that sense of dignity and respect that he gives working people and the labor movement."

But the rookie president does not get perfect grades from the veteran union organizer.

Gage dings administration officials for being taken in by what he calls the "bumper sticker" notion of "pay-for-performance." He acknowledges that paying workers for how well they perform sounds good, but he says pay-for-performance can also be used as a spigot to turn off raises for federal employees.

"We are hellbent to get rid of that," he said, even though few of his members are subject to such a policy. In a speech this week, Gage said "even our friends who may be taken in by the phrase must feel our wrath."

Sure enough, when he heard Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, use the words, he said, "I was in his office the next day, really."

Many administration officials, though not necessarily Orszag, he said, don't "have a good idea of what pay-for-performance is. . . . We have made a very strong request to the Obama administration not to use the term 'pay for performance,' and since then they have been doing that."

Gage and other federal union leaders also were not happy when Obama's budget called for civilian workers to get a lower percentage pay hike than members of the military. That "hurt an ally, us," he said.

But Obama's "pretty wonderful" efforts to limit the amount of work contracted out to private companies and the number of "really great" people he has appointed to various positions earns him "a real solid B" from Gage.

The administration also will get major union points when it grants transportation security officers -- the airport screeners who make you take off your shoes and peer into your baggage -- the right to collective bargaining. Gage said the Obama team has been "a little slow" on getting a Transportation Security Administration boss in place, but he expects the bargaining-rights decision to be made before the end of the year.

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