White collar bureaucrats are not the kind of people who strike. But maybe that is because they have never had a good enough reason.
You can trim federal pay raises; call employes drones; blame them for everything from the energy crisis to the coming of the next ice age. They take it! So far!But once upon a time, so did police, fire-fighters and teachers. All it takes is an issue and the old rules, restraints and laws mean nothing. And the issue may be at hand.
Strikes by federal employes are illegal. Many civil servants believe a government strike is wrong, or just inappropriate.And civil servants do not have the same community of interest, as rubber workers or teamsters. So they don't strike.
There is, after all, no corporate meanie to target in government. Being held to 5.5 percent raises may be strike issues in Brooklyn, but not to the government clerk in Alabama.
But the bottom line, some people believe, is that federal workers have never had any compeling reason to strike. There has never been an issue, or threat, that could pull the two million diverse working groups together, no central threat that scared them all. However it appears Congress is about to hand them one.
The issue is pensions.
Federal and postal employes have one of the best pension programs in the world. They signed on for it, pay for it and expect it. Now Congress is considering a plan to put them all under social security, which is not so hot.
Union membership in government has jumped since Congress started talking seriously about merging the civil service retirement program with social security. It had been declining. Since Congress started talking about mandatory social security coverage members of one retiree organization, who gripe about 50-cent-per-month dues, sent in $800,000 in a matter of weeks to fight it.
Putting feds and postal workers under social security may be politically popular, since misery loves company and most other Americans are required to belong to social security. But Congress and the administration may find they have a buzz saw on their hands, if they try it.
Federal workers have a good pension deal and they know it. They pay more for it than do people under social security and they know that. Their annuities are taxed. Social security payments are not. And they know that. Their system is a employer-employe financed staff program; social security is partly a welfare program. And they know it.
In addition to the genuine fear of losing benefits, of losing what they signed up for, many federal workers think the social security push represents a betrayal.
For many years, Andrew E. Ruddock headed the federal retirement program. He was respected on Capitol Hill, by unions [as an adversary] and the media that covers the bureaucracy. Ruddock has come out of retirement to work for the National Association of Postal Supervisors. His mission is to help block the possible switch to social security.
Writing this month in the Supervisors magazine, Ruddock explains - as well as anyone so far - why government workers are so angry at the prospect of forced social security. Here is part of what he wrote:
". . . in nonlegal terms the law says that civil service retirement benefits are deferred compensation, and the salary of a federal employe has not been paid in full until the benefits have also been paid. In marked contrast . . . the Supreme Court has referred to social security as a 'social welfare program without accrued property rights.'"
"Only once in its 59-year history" Ruddock wrote, has the government backed out on a pension promise to its employes. Then it substituted a system calling for cost-of-living adjustments every six months for retirees. It was not as good as their old system, but still better than most retirees have.
That slight pension cutback covered everybody in government, and the million-plus people who had already retired. It was a retroactive rules change.
Ruddock says it was a "breach of faith" that is of "doubtful legality." But if Congress did it once, it could do it again.
Some people say federal workers would never strike. Some people say nobody would know it if they did. Maybe. But those theories may be tested, perhaps as early as next year, if Congress and the White House decide to tamper with the federal pension program.