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.
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.