After playing defense for much of last year — with sequestration-forced furloughs, agency budget cuts and political gridlock leading to a 16-day government shutdown — the largest federal-employee union is ready to play offense.
“We’re not going to wallow in self-pity, we’re going to fight back and bargain better contracts,” American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox said in a fiery speech Monday at the union’s annual legislative and grassroots mobilization conference in Washington. “We don’t fear getting knocked down, brothers and sisters, we’re going to swing with both fists, and we’re going to take it to Capitol Hill and whoop their ass — that’s what we’re going to do!”
The budget battles last year actually turned out to be good news for AFGE’s membership drive. At the end of 2013, the number of dues-paying AFGE members reached 284,630 active members, a number the union hasn’t seen in decades and one that makes it the fastest growing union in the AFL-CIO.
“It’s a big number, but it’s not big enough,” Cox said before laying out the union’s next ambitious goal: reaching 600,000 members in the next five years.
“This is not a pipe dream,” Cox said. “My wife didn’t give me drugs this morning; I am not doing anything like that,” Cox said. “This is a goal that we can achieve.”
The key is working to unionize the approximately 500,000 currently unorganized units left in the federal government, Cox said.
Retirement contributions among top legislative priorities
At the top of the union’s legislative priorities this year is reversing the increased pension contributions Congress mandated for new federal workers beginning this year.
In last year’s budget deal, federal workers hired beginning this year will be required to contribute 1.3 percent more toward their retirements compared to workers hired last year and 3 1/2 percent more compared to employees on board before the start of 2013.
“They’re pitting older workers against younger workers,” Cox said, calling it a “race to the bottom” for the federal workforce.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who also addressed the AFGE crowd, was one of the top Democrats on the budget committee. He said Republicans on the committee initially wanted to raise all current federal employees’ retirement contributions to 5 percent in a bid to free up $20 billion in deficit savings.
“And I am pleased to say … when others were willing to settle for $20 billion, we said ‘Hell no, we’re not going to do that,'” Van Hollen said. “And as a result of that, not only did the number come way down, but we made sure that it did not negatively impact any current federal employee, period.”
Van Hollen said he also received a promise from President Barack Obama that the White House would not propose any federal retirement changes in its fiscal 2015 budget — as it has done in each of the last few years — when the budget is released next month.
AFGE also vows fight over pay
Pay issues are also at the top of AFGE’s legislative agenda.
“It’s time to start laying the groundwork for real, meaningful pay raises — not 1 lousy percent in four damn years!” Cox said.
AFGE will also fight to pass legislation leveling the field between blue-collar wage-grade employees and salaried workers in the same geographic area when it comes to annual locality-based pay adjustments.
For example, blue-collar workers at Pennsylvania’s Tobyhanna Army Depot receive minimal locality-pay adjustments because they’re included in the wage area for Scranton. But white-collar General Schedule workers in the same region are included in New York City’s wage area and receive much bigger locality-pay adjustments.
In remarks before the crowd, lawmakers from both parties praised the work of federal employees.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), whose district covers the Tinker Air Force Base and the Fort Sill Army Base, said federal employees have paid their fair share to deficit reduction.
Current agency spending levels are below the last year of the Bush administration, Cole noted.
“A lot of that sacrifice has come directly from federal employees,” Cole said. “That is one heck of a contribution to the fiscal problems of this country. And I would say it’s probably about as far as we can go.”
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) was more colorful in his praise of the federal workforce.
“For every one of my colleagues who’s ever described you as a nameless, faceless bureaucrat, I would just say, they can go to hell,” Carper said.