Outside of the heavily unionized U.S. Postal Service, federal workers in most other jobs and agencies depend on the whims of politicians -- sometimes Congress but more often the president -- to decide how much of a pay raise they get each January.

Postal employees bargain with management over wages.

This year, nonpostal federal workers got a raise of 3.6 percent. That was in spite of data showing they were due a much larger increase to close what is officially said to be a 20 percent to 30 percent wage "gap" with their counterparts in the private sector.

Federal workers consider the pay gap gospel. Private-sector types don't see it.

Congress meantime is working on giving military personnel -- and civil servants, too -- a 4.8 percent raise effective in January. President Clinton had proposed a 4.4 percent increase.

Either way, the amount of the annual pay raise is out of the hands of most employees in most agencies.

Soon, however, some lawyers at the Federal Aviation Administration will join their co-workers in air traffic control centers nationwide in being able to bargain for the ultimate chip on the table: wages!

When Congress released the FAA from the earthly bonds of many civil service rules, it said that unionized workers could bargain with management over salaries. It also gave the FAA the option of lowering salaries of unorganized workers via a complex "core compensation" plan. The point was not lost on FAA employees or unions.

Air traffic controllers -- who already were organized -- took the government up on bargaining for salaries. Today, their average salary is about $80,000, and some in high-density traffic areas get $100,000 or more. In a recent letter to fellow members of the House Appropriations Committee, Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) warned that FAA costs are skyrocketing. "FAA's average staff year cost is now $100,000 per person, which is among the highest in the federal service," he wrote.

Under their current contract with the FAA, some controllers could be getting raises of $10,000 a year over each of the next several years.

Mindful of what the controllers have done, lawyers in the office of the FAA's chief counsel have decided to unionize. Last Thursday, they voted 69 to 5 to allow the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to be their bargaining agent. AFSCME says 93 employees were eligible to vote.

AFSCME's Washington-based Council 26 is one of the more aggressive -- and successful -- union operations in the federal service. It was formed from locals that were kicked out of the American Federation of Government Employees union decades ago for their opposition to the Vietnam War.

The council represents most of AFSCME's members in the federal establishment -- the union mainly represents state and local government workers. Organizers, many refugees from more traditional federal unions, often have gone where no other union has been, thought of going or wanted to be. The union now represents radio and TV technicians at Voice of America, laborers in the office of the architect of the Capitol, and staff members at the Library of Congress.

It was once thought that FAA controllers, because of their critical jobs, had the best chance of any government employees of getting what they want -- or else.

That, of course, was before the lawyers organized. Hold on to your briefs.

LTC, Baltimore-Style

House hearings on proposals to extend long-term care insurance coverage to federal and military personnel move to Baltimore today. The civil service subcommittee will hold a 1 p.m. hearing at the War Memorial Building, 100 N. Gay St. Chairman Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) conducted a long-term care insurance hearing in his home district. Today's effort is sponsored by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the subcommittee's ranking Democrat.

Scarborough introduced the GOP bill calling for competing insurance plans to set premiums and benefits. Cummings and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) introduced the White House plan, which gives government a major role in setting premiums and benefit levels.

Both sides agree that long-term care insurance should be available to federal and military personnel at group rates and that policyholders should pay the entire premium. Long-term care insurance would cover workers, retirees, spouses, parents and parents-in-law.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causeym@washpost.com.

Monday, June 14, 1999