Why don't more federal workers join unions?

About 60 percent of white-collar feds are represented by unions, although fewer than 30 percent belong or pay dues. Most postal workers are union members.

Unions now speak for most rank-and-file feds, members or not. Unions are required to represent nonmembers, a situation that sometimes makes both unions and nonmembers angry.

Unions are sometimes criticized--including in the Federal Diary--when their leaders embrace, ignore or make tepid protests about things done by Democrats--such as cutting 300,000 jobs and privatizing certain operations--that would be totally unacceptable to them if proposed by Republicans.

But unions, by and large, do very good work at the national level--sometimes despite the fact that some of their leaders insist on cuddling certain politicians and sometimes because of it. Last year was a good one for unions and for groups representing professionals and retirees.

The Jan. 5 Federal Diary, "Plenty of Reasons for Paying Dues," was intended to give groups that represent federal workers and retirees their due. They had a great year in 1999. They beat back bipartisan efforts to mess with federal benefits and pensions, joined a bipartisan effort to win the biggest pay raise in years and played hardball with political "friends" over the issue of contracting out work.

The column asked nonmembers to ask themselves why they weren't paying dues. I assumed that feds avoided unions for one of three reasons: They were too cheap to pay dues. They didn't like union political actions. Or they just didn't like unions. Feds who responded said it is more complicated than that.

Many unions asked for permission to reprint the pay-your-dues column. They probably won't do that with this one. But union leaders might learn something (whether they like it or not) by reading responses from nonmembers:

* "Why I don't join is because I do not want one red cent of my money going to the Democratic National Committee." -- Edward J. Steinmetz, St. Louis.

* "The current issue of the American Federation of Government Employees union newspaper shows a political tilt. It 'rates' presidential candidates on issues of alleged importance to feds. But it overlooks one candidate's warts! . . . In one rating column, it says Sen. John McCain [R-Ariz.] 'Opposed labor's position on OSHA and Mine Safety and Health Administration standards,' and says Texas Gov. George W. Bush. 'Supports NAFTA,' and also slams former senator Bill Bradley because he 'opposed labor's position on NAFTA.' But what does it say about Vice President Gore, who, along with President Clinton pushed and supported NAFTA? It says Gore 'fought for workplace safety.' Seems like Gore gets off the NAFTA hook. Is an endorsement in the works?" -- Charlie Z.

* "Perhaps more would join if more information was available about unions. I work at Andrews Air Force Base. There is no union information posted anywhere. When I changed to a job that was union-covered, the only way I knew was from my SF-50 [personnel form]. . . . Without any recruitment effort and information about their cost and benefits, unions should not be surprised they don't have a high membership." -- Susan Smith.

* "I have to differ with you [on the value of unions]. I tried for SEVEN YEARS to join a federal union in the Northern Virginia area. First it was a mystery about who represented our agency. (It turned out to be AFGE [American Federation of Government Employees], but no idea which local). . . . I tried, tried and tried . . . to reach someone, anyone, who would give me information. . . . There was no . . . interest in gaining one more member. . . . Based on my personal experience, I will actively fight the fed unions, their officials and their goals. The organizations are totally self-serving of their officials, apparently, as a fiefdom for power-wielding and actual work avoidance." -- Dave K.

* "Unions are too political. Democrats can do no wrong. Republicans can do nothing right--even if they are the same things. My former union, the National Treasury Employees Union, has the embarrassing habit of being the first to endorse a [Democratic] presidential candidate. One time NTEU even endorsed Sen. Ted Kennedy BEFORE he decided to run, which, as it turns out, he never did!" No name please, it's tough enough working for the IRS.

* "I'm the most pro-union guy you'll ever meet. I subscribe to the AFL-CIO magazine. . . . I boycott any company that's in dispute with a union. . . . I believe in unions and their ability to raise the living standard of the common man. Yet all my efforts [at the Department of Education] to join a union were in vain. . . . A sad footnote to all this: When I went to work for ED in June 1995, I noticed a leaflet on the union bulletin board announcing a noontime rally on Capitol Hill. The rally took place just days before I was employed. When I left ED in 1999 . . . that bulletin board contained the same, now yellowed leaflet, announcing a 1995 rally." -- Laurent Ross.

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

Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2000