For years, federal and postal unions counted on congressional Democrats to fight--or slow--efforts to farm out work done by civil servants to the private sector. But times change. Under the Clinton administration, with its emphasis on downsizing and reinventing government, tens of thousands of jobs once done by government employees have been privatized.

Although more than 300,000 civil service positions have been eliminated in the past six years, many of the functions are now being performed by private contractors. That's one reason Bobby L. Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, refused to endorse Vice President Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination at a recent AFL-CIO endorsement session.

As the number of federal workers (and union members) declines, some government unions have launched a counterattack. They are reaching out and organizing private-sector workers whose companies perform services for Uncle Sam.

Although the number of private-sector employees in federal and postal unions is probably less than 4,000, efforts to recruit private-sector workers eventually could outpace those inside the federal service.

The most aggressive actions have been taken by AFGE and the American Postal Workers Union, headed by longtime President Moe Biller. AFGE has a couple of thousand private-sector members in the states of Washington, Florida, Virginia and Indiana, including hospital personnel in Seattle and missile-guidance workers in Indianapolis.

Last week, the APWU--which represents mostly Postal Service "inside" workers, such as clerks--won its sixth nonfederal representation election. In a 43 to 22 vote, truck drivers who haul the mail under contract for an Albuquerque company picked the APWU as their bargaining agent. Truck drivers--as the Teamsters have taught any number of private-sector employers--can make or break a delivery operation, a point not lost on the APWU, whose federal members by law cannot strike.

Interior to Energy

Ah, the power of the press! Yesterday's Federal Diary item about buyouts listed the Bonneville Power Administration as an Interior Department agency. But Steve Smith and Kathe Donaldson spotted the error. They point out that the BPA, with headquarters in Portland, Ore., is part of the Department of Energy. Makes sense.

Overseas Pay Raise

From Morocco, John Wooten writes: "I was furious when I read your article about the cost-of-living increase for fed workers. What about us important workers overseas? We don't get locality pay! Neither do we get family-friendly work hours!"

He's right. Overseas federal workers--and those in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands--don't get the locality portion of any federal pay raise. The "average" increase for this year is 4.8 percent. But the actual amount will vary city by city. Federal workers in the Washington-Baltimore area are due a total raise of 4.94 percent. Those in New York City and Houston will get more, those in Richmond less.

But because the president allocated 3.8 percent of the overall raise for the national adjustment (and 1 percentage point for locality pay), overseas federal workers will get a 3.8 percent raise. Workers in Alaska and Hawaii get differentials ranging from 15 to 25 percent on top of base pay. But like "overseas" federal workers, they don't get locality adjustments.

COLAs vs. Pay Raise

Incidentally, federal pay raises are not--and never have been--linked to the cost of living. Cost-of-living adjustments go to federal retirees, military retirees and people getting Social Security. During times of high inflation, retirees' COLAs often are bigger than federal workers' pay raises. During times of low inflation, like now, the COLAs tend to be smaller.

In contrast to the average 4.8 percent federal pay raise, federal and military retirees, whose COLAs are based on last year's inflation rate, get a 2.4 percent increase this year.

It is easy to confuse pay raises and COLAs, but not when you see the difference in your paycheck.

Investment Open Season

Federal and postal workers have until Jan. 31 to sign up for the thrift savings plan or to reallocate future payroll contributions. Employees now have three choices in the federal 401(k) plan. One fund tracks the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index; another tracks a bond index; and the third is invested in special Treasury securities. Starting in May, savings plan participants also will be able to invest in an international stock index fund and a domestic small-capitalization stock index fund.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is

Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2000