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A new labor alliance, with notable absences

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By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Federal employee unions may have a friend in the White House, but Barack Obama is still management.

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With that in mind, 21 labor organizations that collectively represent 300,000 federal workers have joined forces in a new Federal Workers Alliance. Noticeably absent from the list are the two largest federal unions, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union. Their absence has a subplot linked to intensifying competition over airport security screeners, a major contingent both groups want to organize.

The Alliance does, however, include large, powerful unions that have relatively few federal workers among their members, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Teamsters and national teachers unions. These and others in the Alliance are politically potent groups, with clout in Congress generated by well-placed election campaign donations from well-funded political action committees. At least eight FWA members have political action committees among the top 20 contributors to candidates in 2007-2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

"Federal unions understand that the current administration is poised to propose some fairly broad, sweeping government-wide changes in the not too distant future," said interim Chairman William R. Dougan, who also is president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. "I am confident that the labor organizations of the FWA will work together to ensure the strongest possible voice for federal workers with the Obama administration and Congress."

Federal labor leaders say they need a strong, unified voice now because they expect the administration to soon propose changes in the way federal employees are managed, perhaps when the White House sends its next budget to Congress. They don't know of any specific proposals, but they listened closely as John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, offered wide-ranging possibilities in a series of remarks last year.

In November, he spoke of "entirely eliminating classification" for federal employees. That would mean a dramatic overhaul, if not death to the General Schedule, the system that for 60 years has been the primary compensation structure for federal workers.

Berry suggested career ladders with three stages: apprentice, journey and expert. The three levels could improve the GS system rather than replace it, he said at the time, without explaining how they would interact.

Berry also has floated the notion of a single, government-wide pay system, rather than the current variety of arrangements. The system "has become balkanized to the point of a risk failure," he told reporters in May.

And he has repeatedly made it clear that Obama wants an enhanced employee performance evaluation or performance management system to be included in any reform.

"The handwriting is on the wall," Dougan said. "There obviously are going to be some significant government-wide changes." The Alliance "allows us to speak from a position of strength . . . and that's a very powerful thing."

The coalition approach certainly isn't new to Uncle Sam. Federal supervisors have the Government Managers Coalition, and 28 federal employee groups including the NTEU are in the Fund for Assuring an Independent Retirement, also known as the Federal-Postal Coalition.

Berry welcomed the new group. "We are eager to work with all labor organizations to advance higher productivity for the taxpayers through honest and open communication and partnership," he said.


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