- By Eric Katz February 12, 2014
After fighting to end a three-year pay freeze, reverse sequestration spending caps and avoid pension contribution hikes for current federal employees in 2013, unions representing the federal workforce are turning their attention to new obstacles in 2014.
For the American Federation of Government Employees, the primary focus could be protecting its own existence.
At its 2014 Legislative and Mobilization conference, AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. identified attempts to cut official time for federal employee union representatives and efforts to ban automatic dues deduction as major existential threats to the organization and its ability to fight for its members.
Official time allows certain employees to perform union activities while on the clock at their federal jobs. Cox and other unions have defended the practice as a fair tradeoff for the mandate that requires federal employee unions to represent all bargaining units in negotiations, whether or not they pay dues to a union. Republicans in the House and Senate have introduced several proposals in the last few years to ban or restrict the use of official time. Cox emphasized the need to fight any attempts to pass these bills into law, including by quietly attaching them to larger pieces of legislation.
Unions say that official time is necessary because employees joining a bargaining unit are not required to also join its union, as is the case in some private-sector organizations. When employees opt to become members of a union, they do so by having their pay deducted from their paychecks.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., proposed to eliminate the availability of these automatic deductions. The effort ultimately died, but AFGE is still concerned similar initiatives could resurface. Without the deductions, Cox said, the union would lose its primary source of funding.
Growing the Union
While federal employee unions attempt to stave off threats to their collective survival, they are simultaneously hoping to expand. At the end of 2013, AFGE fell just shy of its goal of 300,000 dues-paying members. Looking forward, Cox says he hopes to double that number.
Cox said having 600,000 members, “is not a pipedream, it’s a goal we can achieve.”
Part of that growth will be expanding the number of bargaining units the union represents. AFGE recently won a national contract represent the Defense Contract Audit Agency. For the first time since its creation 48 years ago, all 3,200 DCAA employees will enjoy union representation.
The largest and most obvious ongoing challenge for federal employee unions is ensuring adequate compensation for their members (Cox said he hoped to make the recent pay freeze the last of his lifetime).
For many federal employees, part of that compensation package is delivered through performance awards, or bonuses.
The National Treasury Employees Union started legal action when the Internal Revenue Service announced it was planning to renege on planned bonuses for its workforce. NTEU and the IRS recently settled out of court, however, to provide reduced awards to employees.
According to one poll, however, the public is not happy about it.
Right-leaning pollster Rasmussen Reports found 68 percent of Americans did not support the decision to partially reinstitute the bonus program, though the poll’s question wording may have contributed to that result. The response is not particularly surprising, however, as the IRS consistently ranks as Americans’ least favorite federal agency.
Eric Katz joined Government Executive in the summer of 2012 after graduating from The George Washington University, where he studied journalism and political science. He has written for his college newspaper and an online political news website and worked in a public affairs office for the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. Most recently, he worked for Financial Times, where he reported on national politics.