Federal Unions: What Do They Really Do?

In the private sector, unions typically bargain over pay and fringe benefits. In some places, workers (or a percentage of workers) must belong to the union. Or at least pay dues.

But when you work for the federal government your fringe package: retirement benefits, number of paid holidays, amount of sick leave and 401k plan benefits – is set by Congress. When it comes to pay raises, the amount white-collar federal workers get each January is set by Congress and the White House. And there is no requirement to belong to or pay dues to unions that represent you.

The big exception is the heavily-unionized U. S. Postal Service where unions and management bargain over pay raises. But while the USPS is big, most federal employees don’t work there.

So if they can’t bargain over wages (outside of the U.S. Postal Service) and benefits what do unions do?

The short answer is plenty. And much of what they do isn’t immediately – or ever – visible because it involves lobbying Congress.

Last year, federal unions, and groups representing supervisors, managers, executives and retirees teamed up and won a number of both new, and long-sought perks for feds.

Having a Democratic Congress and a Democrat in the White House last year helped greatly. Most of the candidates federal unions endorsed were Democrats and 2009 was payback time.

But unions are also doing a variety of things from boycotts to bike races:

  • The National Treasury Employees Union is locked in a major struggle with the American Federation of Government Employees in an effort to win new members and bargaining rights for TSA employees.
  • The American Postal Workers Union is urging its members to boycott a management employee-attitude survey. The U.S. Postal Service says the “Voice of the Employee” surveys help management figure out ways to improve service and working conditions. But the APWU says in the past the USPS has fiddled with the facts and used “survey data to justify claims that employees supported (management) wage proposals.”

Meantime, the AFL-CIO is holding its convention this week in Detroit.

  • In the case of the race for DC Mayor, the AFGE appears to have taken sides in the hotly-contested Democratic primary race between incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray, chairman of the D.C. City Council. Since 97 percent of DC’s voters are registered Democrats, winning the September primary is a real big help with the November election.
  • Dwight Bowman is national vice president for the D.C. area. Many AFGE members work for the city government or live in DC. As such, the union is running a 60-second radio spot blasting Fenty for closing free daycare centers and allegedly “funneling…multi-million dollar contracts to his fraternity brothers.”
  • The National Association of Letter Carriers (like the APWU) continues to lobby Congress to save six-day delivery. The Postal Service says it needs to drop one day to save money. Unions argue that it would cost the USPS badly needed customers.
  • The National Federation of Federal Employees, which had a good legislative year for its members, was stunned by the death of Richard N. Brown, its popular president. As a memorial, the union is sponsoring a 45-mile bike ride through upstate New York on September 19. For details go to the union website at www.nffe.org

To reach me: mcausey@federalnewsradio.com

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