J. David Cox just won a presidential race this month, but it’s the one in November that will be much more consequential for his members.
Cox was elected two weeks ago as president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal union. He’s had no time to savor that victory, however, because he is gearing up to help President Obama and other labor-friendly candidates win their campaigns.
For this election cycle, unions will have increased power, although it comes with the steep cost of a Supreme Court decision two years ago. Cox is eager to use that influence on behalf of Obama, which is not to say he is totally happy with the current administration.
Despite some differences, “winning this election in November is the biggest challenge,” Cox said during a meeting with Washington Post journalists Tuesday. Reelecting Obama, retaining the Democrats’ Senate majority and making inroads into Republican domination of the House are among his top priorities. Also right up there for Cox is “moving legislation that will treat federal employees fairly with pay and benefits.”
The AFGE leader doesn’t think Obama’s policies on pay have treated federal employees fairly, but the alternative, he said, would be much worse. Congress adopted the president’s proposal to impose a two-year freeze of basic pay rates that was scheduled to conclude at the end of this year. But Obama now has extended that freeze at least through April, when a short-term budget deal expires.
The Republican platform calls for “the adjustment of pay scales and benefits to reflect those of the private sector.” That would mean even greater employee sacrifices, despite repeated government surveys indicating federal employees are underpaid compared to their private sector counterparts, by 26 percent, according to the latest report. Romney and other GOP politicians favor a Heritage Foundation report that says federal workers are overpaid by at least 30 percent.
Cox said he is scheduled to meet Wednesday with Nate Tamarin, a special assistant to Obama who deals with labor. When the stop-gap measure runs out, Cox wants the 0.5 percent pay raise Obama had earlier recommended for federal workers made retroactive to January 2013. Cox also has asked John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, to postpone health insurance rate hikes until federal employees get a pay raise.
But even with some hesitation about the president, “Barack Obama and his administration is a million times better” than John McCain would have been, according to Cox, and “a 100 million times better than [Mitt] Romney.”
To prevent a Romney victory, AFGE hopes to exceed the 2,000 AFGE members who worked for Obama last time. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision allows unions to target not just union households, as previously was the case, but every house in a neighborhood. The decision also allows big money to flood campaigns, much of it to Republican candidates. On balance, union leaders consider it a terrible decision, but one that does allow greater use of their people power.
“Feet on the street is as critical as anything we can do,” Robert Nicklas, director of AFGE’s Political Action Committee and Issues Mobilization Department, said by telephone. “Feet on the street” includes going door-to-door and telephoning voters to get out the Obama vote.
He said Citizens United “undermines democracy,” because it “opened the door for the rich to buy elections.” Nonetheless, in the wake of the decision, AFGE created a super PAC, Nicklas said, because “in the environment we’re in, we don’t have any choice but to do that.”
AFGE plans to focus on races in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Michigan and the Senate race in Massachusetts. “Virginia is very critical to us,” Nicklas said, because of the close Senate and presidential campaigns and the high percentage of federal workers.
AFGE will cooperate with wider election efforts by organized labor. As a result of building a broader network, Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO political director, expects about 400,000 volunteers from the labor federation, almost double the 250,000 he said mobilized four years ago.
If Romney beats Obama in November, Cox fears the Republicans could void one of AFGE’s biggest victories — negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with the Transportation Security Administration. Negotiations on the first contract for transportation security officers, who screen passengers and baggage at the nation’s airports, concluded earlier this month. It still must be ratified by the membership.
“Romney may very well be able to negate this contract,” Cox said, speaking measuredly as if contemplating the unthinkable. “We’re now at the dice table shooting dice.”
In their platform, Republicans say they “recognize the dedication of federal workers.” That’s meaningless to union leaders like Cox.
“A Romney administration,” he said, “I cringe to think about it.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.