Federal employee unions look to improve image of workforce

WASHINGTON — — Howard Friedman has heard the chatter from his own community to Capitol Hill — sometimes questions, sometimes complaints about the federal workforce, its size and its cost.

The Gaithersburg man, an attorney and union leader at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, wants to change the conversation.


"We've been criticized far too long, strictly on matters dealing with the size of the workforce and our compensation," he said. "I think people don't really understand the direct connection between what we do and the quality of life in our country for taxpayers and for everybody."

Friedman, a 20-year federal employee and the son of a 30-year federal employee, appears in a pair of 60-second television spots just released by the National Treasury Employees Union. They are aimed at informing the public of the services the federal government provides.


Coming after a bruising 2013 for federal workers, who endured the third year of a pay freeze, furloughs during the summer and a partial government shutdown in October, the NTEU campaign is one of several efforts by federal workers' unions to rally the public to their side.

The American Federation of Government Employees, emboldened, perhaps, by improving conditions — a 1 percent pay raise that has broken the three-year freeze, a budget deal that makes furloughs less likely and a bipartisan consensus that the shutdown was a political disaster — stayed on the offensive last week during its annual conference in Washington with a march on the Capitol.

Intent on telling lawmakers that federal workers have given enough in the recent budget battles, they were met by Democrats, including Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who spoke in their support.

"I think everyone is doing what they can," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the NTEU.

The union, which represents 150,000 workers across several federal agencies, including the Silver Spring-based Food and Drug Administration and the Rockville-based Nuclear Regulatory Commission, launched its campaign last week to, in officials' words, connect the dots between federal employees and the services taxpayers receive.

"During the 16 days of the shutdown, I think there was much more of a cognizance of the impact ... to not have federal employees on the job doing the things that the country depends on," Kelley said. "But then the shutdown was over. And so everyone goes back to just expecting that the water will be clean, the air will be clean, their investments will be safe, and their Social Security check will get there, and the borders will be protected, and drugs will be interdicted and all those things.

"As long as it's happening, and it's happening quietly and under the radar, no one talks about it. So we're trying to break the quiet."

While 2014 might bring more stability to federal employees than in 2013, Kelley cited three concerns raised recently by the Government Accountability Office: flat hiring by many agencies, pay increases that lag behind inflation, and the eligibility of nearly a third of the workforce in the next three years to retire.


"Based on the nonstop threats aimed at federal employees, whether it's their pay or their funding or their benefits, we've been seeing more and more federal employees exercise that right to retire," she said. "If those numbers play out, that's very dangerous for the country."

The NTEU has released 30- and 60-second spots to 300 television and 1,000 radio stations, launched a website and a Facebook page all with the theme "They Work for Us." The union is planning a yearlong campaign.

The spots show a succession of NTEU members, each describing the impact of their work on the country. Friedman, who reviews trademark applications for the Patent and Trademark Office, appears in two.

In one, he looks into the camera and says, "We bring inventions to the marketplace quicker. That helps our economy." In the other, he says "Without us, intellectual property would not be protected."

Friedman, who is president of NTEU Chapter 245 at the Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va., describes the agency's work as essential to the economy.

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By approving patents and trademarks, the agency preserves the incentive for inventors and entrepreneurs to develop new products and services.


According to agency data, every two jobs in information technology- and intellectual property-intensive industries support another job elsewhere in the economy, for a total of about 40 million jobs.

"The innovative products and services created in America, from life-saving medical devices to smartphone applications, creates millions of jobs," Friedman said. "If you have effective enforcement of intellectual property, it enables this country to promote economic growth, ensure our global competitiveness and protect the health and safety of our citizens."

Other federal employees in the spots say they protect investors from insider training, stop terrorists from entering the country, collect tax revenue to fund government service, and reduce child hunger.

"People need to understand there's a very talented, experienced federal workforce," Friedman said. "And why people would want to denigrate the things that that federal workforce does every day to help everybody else? … That's something that we really want to change."