Federal workers union gathers uneasily for conference

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 8:17 PM

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) kicked off the annual gathering of the National Treasury Employees Union on Tuesday with a call to federal workers to "gird yourself for battle" against Republican-led attacks on their ranks.

"What we're witnessing is nothing short of an assault on the rights of working men and women in America," Connolly told hundreds of union members gathered in Washington for a three-day meeting and lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill. He called efforts by House Republicans to target federal workers and agencies for steep spending cuts the "demonization of federal employees."

"The ultimate victims of that demonization are the public we serve," Connolly added.

The NTEU, with 160,000 members from 31 agencies, is the federal government's second-largest union. Its legislative conference comes amid the specter of a federal government shutdown if Congress cannot break an impasse over spending. In addition, some GOP members of Congress have proposed cutbacks in federal compensation as one way to reduce the deficit.

The NTEU's message this week echoes the theme sounded last month by the American Federation of Government Employees at a similar gathering: The public needs to know how federal workers serve them.

"It would be a gross understatement to say these are challenging times to be a federal worker," the NTEU's president, Colleen M. Kelley, told the crowd assembled at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel. "We need to carry the message that drastic budget cuts will hurt America's most vulnerable citizens."

The union has scheduled a rally at the Capitol for noon Wednesday, and rank-and-file members headed to Capitol Hill Tuesday to lobby personally against budget cuts they say would hurt essential government services.

The House passed a $4 billion cut in federal spending on Tuesday as part of a measure that keeps the government running until March 18. Democratic Senate leaders said they would vote Wednesday on the legislation.

Still unresolved on Capitol Hill is the fate of a House Republican spending plan for the rest of the government's fiscal year. It would slice $61 billion from federal agencies, cutting across almost every one. But the Democratically controlled Senate appears unpersuaded by it.

The congressional logjam meant that the prospect of a government shutdown was on the minds of the federal workers gathered at the hotel, who ranged from customs and border protection officers to lawyers for the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"There is a lot of consternation" over whether federal workers would get paid retroactively, as they were after the last government shutdown in 1995 and 1996, Kelley said, as well as which workers would be considered essential and be called in to work.

"In most cases, agencies have not made any official communication about shutdown plans to employees," she said.

The budget impasse is one of many legislative issues affecting union members. Republicans have proposed furloughs, hiring freezes, greater employee contributions to federal pensions and other changes - some of which were recommended last year by a bipartisan fiscal commission appointed by President Obama.

To fend off the proposed cuts, the NTEU is joining forces with the AFGE and other federal unions for a media and lobbying campaign this spring to promote the workforce, Kelley said. She did not provide details. With so many issues facing federal workers in coming months, she said, "It's a long-term strategy."

In the short term, the government's two largest unions are locked in a battle to decide which will represent about 43,000 transportation security officers who have been granted limited collective bargaining rights. Balloting begins March 9.

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