The Washington Post

Gage gets victory lap before retiring as AFGE leader


AFGE President John Gage retires with a major victory: negotiating a contract for transportation security officers. (Courtesy of American Federation of Government Employees)
Columnist

John Gage’s final victory as president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) came just in time.

Had negotiations over a contract for 45,000 transportation security officers (TSOs) dragged on much longer, the leader of the largest federal employee union would have been denied the accomplishment he was determined to secure. But after a negotiating process that began seven months ago and an organizing effort that began a decade ago, the AFGE and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reached agreement last week, just two weeks before Gage leaves office.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Even now, days from retirement, Gage is “still caught up in TSA land,” he said, dealing with cases that will go to a new arbitration system, a contract ratification process and continuing the union’s membership drive.

He has gained respect for being a fierce advocate of his members even from people who are not always on the same side of an issue.

“John Gage has been a passionate and highly effective labor leader for years,” said Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Director John Berry. “John long ago recognized a simple and profound idea — that labor and management achieve more when we work together.”

After nine years as president, Gage is ready to move on. His June letter to members announcing his retirement said, “I’ve never been able to put the union in the proper place; I’ve never been able to be the activist and simultaneously take care of those who love me. For once, I’m putting my family first.” That family includes an AFGE lawyer, his wife, Patti McGowan.

For Gage, the long TSA fight encapsulates his view of what it means to be a union leader.

The main elements of his job are “communications, representation, organizing, political action, and I don’t pay attention to anything else,” he said. “TSA was kind of all four. What a struggle. . . . It was heroic.”

That struggle included battles with a Bush administration that was not union-friendly, an Obama administration that was friendly but slow, in the union’s view, on granting TSOs collective bargaining rights, and an organizing campaign that became quite unfriendly.

The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) is the second-largest federal worker union and the two labor organizations regularly are allied to protect employee pay, benefits and jobs. But they fought a bitter battle against each other to win over the TSOs, a huge prize in labor organizing. And the wounds apparently haven’t healed.

Asked for a comment about Gage on the eve of his retirement, NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley offered this: “For nine years, John Gage has been a presence in the federal labor-management environment, serving the interests of those represented” by AFGE. The rest of her four-sentence statement didn’t even refer to him.

That contrasts sharply with praise from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka:

“John Gage has been a fearless advocate for working people. He’s been a tireless leader who has sought to create an economy that works for everyone. His recent success in helping 40,000 TSA workers secure union representation is  just the tip of the iceberg of a long career filled with passion and dedication on behalf of his members and all workers throughout the country.”

How Gage’s tenure is viewed depends on where you sit, said Dan Blair, president and chief executive of the National Academy of Public Administration. Acknowledging that AFGE’s members have reason to be pleased with Gage, Blair, a former OPM official under President George W. Bush, also said that “some would think his leadership is shortsighted” because Gage hasn’t prepared his membership for fundamental changes to the civil service system that Blair said need to happen.

Gage, a former minor league catcher, likes to wear black high-top gym shoes, no matter what else he has on. He’s leaving during a time when federal employees have been forced into a two-year freeze on basic pay rates and more cuts are looming. Pressure is building for structural reforms to the pay classification system, reforms that organized labor is unlikely to support.

Today’s atmosphere for federal workers is “worse than toxic,” Gage said. “I can’t think of any good thing to say about it.” No matter who wins the presidential election, federal employees are going to take “a very significant hit,” he added.

Gage understands that protecting against those hits is a job that is larger than the largest union. International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers President Gregory J. Junemann said he appreciates the way Gage reached out to smaller labor organizations.

“He really understood that AFGE was not in the fight alone,” Junemann said, adding: “This is the best thing about John. He left AFGE better than he found it.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
The New Hampshire primary is today. Get caught up on the race.
What to expect in the New Hampshire primary
The Post's Philip Bump says ...
Since he proclaimed that he'd win New Hampshire last summer, Bernie Sanders has seen a swing of about 50 points in his direction. Impressive. But not as impressive as the guy on the other side of the political aisle. Donald Trump has led the Republican field in New Hampshire for almost 200 days, and has held a lead in 51 straight live-caller polls -- every poll stretching back to last July.
The feminist appeal may not be working for Clinton
In New Hampshire, Sen. Bernie Sanders is beating Clinton among women by eight percentage points, according to a new CNN-WMUR survey. This represents a big shift from the results last week in the Iowa caucuses, where Clinton won women by 11 points.
New Hampshire polling averages
Donald Trump holds a commanding lead in the state.
New Hampshire polling averages
A victory in New Hampshire revitalized Hillary Clinton's demoralized campaign in 2008. But this time, she's trailing Bernie Sanders, from neighboring Vermont.
56% 41%
Upcoming debates
Feb. 11: Democratic debate

on PBS, in Wisconsin

Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

Campaign 2016
State of the race

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.