The political wing of the biggest federal union is urging its District, Maryland and Virginia members to vote an almost straight Democratic ticket next month, and to support the statehood and nuclear freeze initiatives on the D.C. ballot.
Endorsements by the PAC (political action committee) of the American Federation of Government Employees are the strongest-ever partisan pitch, and the first plunge into such controversial local (statehood) and national (nuclear weapons freeze) issues for the 50-year-old AFL-CIO union.
The fact that these even are issues shows that the leadership of the AFGE, like some other federal unions, has abandoned the old style of lobbying and "stroke-but-never-strike" attitudes toward powerful but uncooperative politicians.
Union leaders such as AFGE's Ken Blaylock and Vincent Connery of the National Treasury Employees Union have long been more liberal than the typical member they represent.
But in this election, thanks to the drubbing that federal workers and retirees have taken from Congress and the White House, some of the union leaders believe it is safe, and wise, to be tougher and more partisan, even if this riles some of their more traditional members.
As a member of the AFL-CIO executive council, Blaylock is much closer to the Samuel Gompers-style (reward your friends, punish your enemies) trade unionism than many of his field officers and members. Many of them want the union to stick to civil service basics and keep a foot in both political camps.
Connery angered many of his union members with his early 1980 presidential endorsement of Edward M. Kennedy even before some members of the Kennedy clan formally had committed themselves.
While they found President Carter hard to take, most federal and postal union leaders urged their members to hold their noses and vote for him over Ronald Reagan. A majority of their members apparently ignored the advice.
But cutbacks in retirement benefits, layoffs, increased contracting out, and chaotic conditions in the federal health insurance program have strengthened the resolve of liberal-leaning government union leaders who believe their Democrats-are-nicer-than-Republicans instincts were correct.
The days when many federal and postal unions kept a high-level, card-carrying Republican on the staff appear to be over.
Consider that the major unions are working to unseat Sen. William V. Roth (R-Del.), even though he chairs the powerful Governmental Affairs Committee. Until recently, incumbent chairmen, no matter how they behaved, never were publicly put on federal union hit lists.
Consider that the major unions are backing Democratic challengers who are running uphill in Northern Virginia congressional races against incumbent Republicans who were elected just two years ago in districts where one in three voters is a federal government worker.
Most of the endorsements, and the record sums of federal and postal union PACs have gone to Democrats, even in districts where the incumbent Republican is considered safe. These are major risks that the unions would not have run five or 10 years ago.
Membership in most government unions has stabilized or has declined in recent years. But union leaders are gambling that the generally docile federal employe establishment has been radicalized by the current conservative, budget-cutting Congress and administration.
They are hoping that their national get-out-the-vote drives will elect friends and will convince politicians and federal workers that the unions are a political force to be reckoned with. And they hope this will translate into a kinder reception for the feds in the next Congress, and more union members (fewer than 50,000 of the area's 345,000 civil servants hold union cards) in the new year.