Imagine if you had a say, as in voting for or against, your chief executive officer? How would you handle it?

Well, Bobby L. Harnage, Air Force veteran, on-leave civil servant and president of the largest nonpostal federal employee union, has refused to join most other AFL-CIO presidents in making an early presidential endorsement of Vice President Gore. Other AFL-CIO unions that decided to withhold an endorsement include the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers.

But while the UAW and Teamsters are much bigger and more influential, members of the American Federation of Government Employees are unique because they--in some form or another--work directly for the president, and they or their products come into daily contact with the White House and key members of the administration. Unlike other unions, the AFGE (and all federal unions) are barred by law from striking.

As employees of the government, AFGE staffers--from the Pentagon, Labor Department, Social Security Administration and State Department--are involved in everything from the placement of furniture at the White House and in Cabinet offices to supplying data on national defense, farm policy and key economic indicators.

Like critical, but often unseen household help, some of the AFGE folks, in their official capacity, see a lot more of national leaders than most of the rest of us.

Harnage said his members need more time to study the candidates.

"This is not just about who will be in the White House," Harnage said from the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles. "This is about who will be our boss."

For the nation's 2.6 million civil servants, Congress acts as the board of directors and the president is the equivalent of chief executive officer.

While Gore has worked closely with unions in "partnership" agreements and the "reinvention" of government, President Clinton has often irked or infuriated union leaders who supported him in the 1992 and 1996 elections.

In addition to eliminating more than 300,000 federal jobs, the Clinton administration has consistently proposed so-called diet pay raises--much lower than amounts dictated by the bipartisan 1990 federal pay law. This year the president proposed a 4.4 percent adjustment for civil servants but was overruled by Congress, which decreed that military personnel and nonpostal federal civil servants get a 4.8 percent adjustment.

AFGE has also tangled with Cabinet officers, charging that they have refused to follow through on promises made by the White House to give unions greater involvement in decisions affecting government employees.

Harnage said "this employer-employee relationship has been less than perfect on important issues such as pay, health insurance, respect for full collective bargaining" and the privatization of thousands of jobs once performed by career federal employees.

While Gore has been "an advocate for our positions within the administration," Harnage said, "this administration has ended up on the wrong side of the issues on too many occasions."

He said the union has an "endorsement process" that includes letting members--not union leaders--decide who, if anyone, to endorse. "Right now we are encouraging members to learn more about the candidates . . . then we will make a decision based" on that feedback, Harnage said.

Earlier this year, the executive board of the independent National Treasury Employees Union endorsed Gore for president. NTEU has a history of making early endorsements for Democratic presidential candidates.

The National Association of Letter Carriers union last month conducted a presidential preference survey of its 300,000 active and retired members. They were supposed to vote--by mail ballot--for their choices for either the Republican or Democratic nomination. But publication of the results has been delayed--perhaps because of the AFL-CIO's surprise decision to make its early endorsement. This is the earliest AFL-CIO endorsement since 1983, when the leadership picked former vice president Walter Mondale as its choice for president. His next-highest position, however, was ambassador to Japan.

Kenneth T. Lyons, president of the National Association of Government Employees, was also at the Los Angeles convention but couldn't be reached for comment. In the past he has criticized Gore and the administration because of issues such as veterans health, pay, downsizing and reinvention.

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

Thursday, Oct. 14, 1999