The American Federation of Government Employees will elect a new president at its Las Vegas convention next week to lead the largest federal worker union for the next three years. It promises to be a tough period.

With or without sequestration — an across-the-board budget-slashing in January — continuing cuts are inevitable. Federal employees are in the homestretch of a two-year freeze on basic pay rates that is scheduled to end in December. It will cost them $60 billion over a 10-year period. Increased pension contributions will be another $15 billion hit. The Republican-led House has voted to extend the freeze three more years, along with retirement cuts and a 10 percent workforce reduction.

Within this environment, three candidates are seeking to replace the retiring John Gage, who has been president since 2003: Jeffrey David Cox Sr., better known as “J. David,” the union’s secretary-treasurer; Alex Bastani, president of AFGE Local 12, which represents Labor Department employees; and reportedly James Brooks, secretary-treasurer of Local 2430, a Veterans Affairs unit in Colorado Springs. Brooks is a candidate, according to union officials at AFGE headquarters in Washington. But he didn’t confirm that. He did not respond to attempts to contact him by phone, e-mail and Facebook.

The race between Cox and Bastani is a contest of candidates with similar agendas. They have differences in style, emphasis and experience, but not in outlook. Both are strongly supportive of President Obama, for example, yet certainly not overjoyed with all he’s done, or not done, regarding the federal workplace.

At 61, Cox has been secretary-treasurer, the union’s second in command, for six years.

“I am clearly the one with the experience,” he said. “I don’t need on the job training. . . . I believe I’m certainly the logical choice, but I also believe I’ve got the passion and the drive to do that job. . . . It’s a goal of my life to be president of AFGE.”

Cox joined the labor organization in 1985 as a Veterans Affairs nurse in Salisbury, N.C. In 1988, he became vice president, and then president of the union’s largest VA local.

Cox’s syrupy Southern accent grows more determined when he talks about fighting “the forces of those who are anti-federal government employees.” (And he quickly notes AFGE represents some District government workers, too.)

“We fight about the pay, about the working conditions, about the treatment, about having enough people to perform the services,” he continued. “It’s not just the pay and the money. It’s about serving the American people by working for the federal government and being good civil servants.”

Regarding Obama, Cox said: “We worked our butts off to elect Barack Obama president. We’re going to work our butts off to elect him again.”

That was followed with a verbal “but.”

Cox is disappointed that some career managers who got their jobs under the George W. Bush administration “continue to carry the anti-union agenda.” As an example, he cited the downgrading of VA positions to lower categories, a practice stopped after AFGE demonstrated outside the VA headquarters and the White House.

Bastani also is “very happy that Barack Obama is president,” yet frustrated by administration policies such as the pay freeze.

AFGE “can be more aggressive,” he said, when fighting for pay and job protection and against reduced retirement benefits.

“It’s an agenda not just for federal employees, but for the middle class,” said the former Bureau of Labor Statistics economist.

Bastani, who joined the Labor Department 25 years ago, is making a second attempt at the union’s top office. He said the best way to balance the budget is for the government to sharply reduce the number of outside contractors. He gives Obama credit for progress in that area, “but there are still too many contractors,” he said.

In the words of his campaign brochure: “This is where the fight will take place for AFGE in the 21st century: the fight against privatization.”

Bastani, the brochure says, is “the “most qualified, the most experienced” candidate to “beat (contractors) at their own game.”

Though 13 years younger than Cox, Bastani said, “I’ve actually accomplished a lot more.”

Bastani is a lawyer, and many of the accomplishments he cites focus on his legal skills.

“In the last six years as President, with only two other lawyers and two legal interns a semester, we have generated over a million dollars in back pay for members,” his campaign brochure says, speaking of Bastani’s tenure as head of Local 12.

The new president takes office Aug. 16.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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