Perhaps a couple of hundred AFGE members, staff and supporters walked the few blocks from the Hyatt Regency hotel, where the union’s annual legislative conference is taking place, to the West Front of the Capitol. They wanted to let Congress know it should “share prosperity, not austerity,” as the crowd chanted.
“We’ve got to get Congress to understand that federal employees have given enough,” Everett Kelley, AFGE vice president for the Southeast region, said over rally noise. “AFGE and federal employees have given over $120 billion [through compensation hits] over a 10-year period of time.”
Some in Congress already appreciate that message, as evidenced by the number who participated in AFGE events. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and five members of the House, all Democrats, braved the cold to speak at the rally, including Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the Democratic leader. On Monday, four representatives, including one Republican, addressed several hundred union members in the warmth of a hotel ballroom.
At the AFGE’s general session Monday morning, AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. fired up union members tired of feeling like the federal workforce is taken for granted.
“We ain’t taking crap from nobody no more,” he shouted. “Now is the time for us to go on the offensive.”
The AFGE and other federal employee organizations have been forced into playing defense for the past few years by trying to ward off attacks on their pay and benefits. But now that the three-year freeze on basic federal pay rates is over, labor organizations are acting like a chronic fever has been broken.
On Wednesday, for another example, the National Treasury Employees Union will unveil a public relations campaign — including radio and television announcements, a Web site, and social media — to emphasize the role feds play in the daily lives of taxpayers.
Promising a campaign to overturn increased pension contributions for new employees, Cox said, “We will not let this be a race to the bottom. . . . Not no, but hell no.”
He’s aware that it’s going to take more than fiery speeches to get Congress to reverse legislation that created a three-tier federal retirement system. Employees hired this year pay more toward their annuities than those hired last year. And those employees pay more than those hired before that.
“I do understand the political landscape,” he told reporters after his speech Monday. “I’m a realist.”
Cox pointed to AFGE’s “Big Enough to Win” strategic plan, “a first for our union” that was released at the conference. In a December memo to union officials, Cox said the plan is meant “to reposition AFGE from a defensive to a proactive posture.”
The plan includes the appointment of legislative and political coordinators by each local. At least 127 have been appointed in the past month, according to a draft document.
At the national level, the plan calls for supporting volunteers with training on subjects such as outreach to community partners, an image campaign with more news releases, Facebook advertising and a mass-media drive “to change the way the public views federal employees and their union.”
The plan is “designed to create the power necessary to overcome the attacks and win a better future for our members and their families,” Cox wrote in a memo to conference attendees.
Justine Kelly of Dayton, Ohio, echoed that at the rally when she said “to treat us [federal workers] like we are lazy or undeserving is really unfair.” She works for the Social Security Administration and is married to a Defense Department employee.
The attacks might not be over.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told Monday’s crowd “my guess is that the [next] House Republican budget will once again have a big hit to federal employees in it.”
One speaker was unusual because he often votes against AFGE positions. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) voted in support of AFGE positions 32 percent of the time in 2013. But he was instrumental, according to Beth Moten, AFGE’s legislative and political director, in securing the 1 percent raise for federal blue-collar workers that was earlier provided to their white-collar colleagues.
Also, but unsaid, his invitation was a strategic move to cultivate friends among the House Republican majority that can determine the fate of federal employee programs.
Giving a mini-budget lesson during Monday’s session, Cole said the government allots $164 billion less on discretionary spending than it did during the last fiscal year of President George W. Bush’s administration.
“A lot of that sacrifice has come directly from federal employees,” he said. “That is one heck of a contribution to the fiscal problems of this country.”
Feds aren’t used to hearing Republicans give them that much credit.
After the applause died down, Cole added, “and I would say that’s probably about as far as we can go.”
The liberal union activists cheered the conservative Republican.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/