Clad in white American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) rain ponchos, the workers called for a 5.3 percent pay raise in 2017, much more than the 1.6 percent average increase President Obama proposed in the budget plan that was released as they got wet.
They gathered to hear union leaders and congressional Democrats who share their passion and their power deficit. But while the union members don’t have much political power these days, they still have the power to protest. And protest against the small 1.6 percent hike is what they did.
Obama’s budget indicates he also thinks the raise is too small.
“A civilian pay raise less than 2.1 percent in FY 2017 would result in… a relative decrease in civilian pay compared to the private sector of about 9 percent since 2009,” says the “Strengthening the Federal Workforce” section of the administration’s budget.
Citing factors that have “eroded relative compensation for civilian Federal employees,” such as three years of a partial pay freeze and increased retirement contributions for new workers, the budget says “earnings for new Federal employees have fallen more than 10 percentage points relative to the private sector between 2009 and 2015.”
This leaves AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. “sick and tired, damn sick and tired, of freezes and pathetic, penny ante pay raises,” he told the union’s legislative conference Monday. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) moved the delegates at that session with an emotional speech that began with a tribute to federal employees “who are often underpaid, the ones who are often unseen, unnoticed, unappreciated and unapplauded.”
That general theme was repeated at Tuesday’s rally by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the Democratic leader in the House, who was among a string of Democratic members of Congress addressing the crowd.
“Today we raise up for a fair pay raise,” said Pelosi, a colorful, psychedelic-print babushka covering her head. “What’s the number we’re raising up for?”
“5.3” the crowd shouted in unison.
She endorsed a plan by Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who spoke before her, to introduce legislation that would provide a 5.3 percent increase to federal employees next year. No one who spoke wanted to rain on the parade of union enthusiasm. But no one expects a bill calling for 5.3 percent to go any further than Connolly’s legislation calling for a 3.8 percent increase this year did, which is to say nowhere.
But that’s no reason not to try for Pelosi, Connolly and the others who spoke.
“I think we can and should try to do better,” Connolly said of the budget’s pay plan, which he applauded as a starting point. As with Connolly, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) did not predict victory for a 5.3 percent raise, but saw value in the fight for federal employee pay and workplace rights.
“Our strategy is to get the highest possible raise we can for the federal workforce,” Cardin said, adding “we know the realities of the budget.”
Several speakers denounced legislation by House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.), which has the potential to severely weaken federal unions. His Federal Employee Rights Act, a misleading name harshly criticized by labor organizers, would prohibit union dues collection from federal employee paychecks. Price’s press release says his bill protects against “forced union dues,” which is disingenuous because federal employees are not forced to join unions or pay union dues.
The bill’s name is misleading because the bill also would take away the right of federal workers to win union representation elections with a majority of those voting, which is the American standard. Instead, Price wants union representation elections to require a majority of everyone in a bargaining union, a much tougher threshold.
One thing for sure, federal workers are not going to strike for higher pay or stronger workplace protections. That is not permitted. It would be a different story if they were in Israel.
Ariel Yacobi, president of the Israeli Union of Government Employees, got a rise out of the crowd after Cox asked if the visiting unionist had any suggestions for getting the 5.3 percent raise.
“Sisters and brothers,” Yacobi said, “if you need us we will strike in Israel for you.”
He closed with “good luck.”
They’ll need it.