Union leaders are being challenged


WASHINGTON -- Leaders of federal employee unions had to watch their backs this week as challengers capitalized on the rank-and-file's anger over proposals to cut federal pay and benefits.

Yesterday, Robert S. Keener, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, was ousted, and a regional vice president of American Federation of Government Employees announced he will challenge long-time President John Sturdivant.

Under Department of Labor supervision, 700 NFFE delegates voted by mail to return Sheila K. Velazco to the union's highest office. She had been president for two years before losing to Mr. Keener last September.

Several locals had called for the election after questioning how delegates to the 1992 Miami convention were chosen and how officials tallied the votes at that time.

Ms. Velazco came within a few votes of ousting Mr. Keener last year. This year, she won handily -- by nearly 100 votes.

Delegates also cast votes for vice presidents for each of the union's 11 regions and for national secretary/treasurer. Run-offs early next year will decide those crowded contests.

The seeds for Mr. Keener's ouster were sown last year when Congress and the Clinton administration looked repeatedly at federal worker pay scales, pension and health benefits to pay for new programs and trim the deficit.

A coalition of Mr. Sturdivant, Mr. Keener and National Treasury Employees Union President Robert Tobias fended off the initiatives, which came up in debates over base closings, health care, reinventing government and the Clinton budget.

The efforts of Congress and the administration left the rank-and-file worried about job security, especially with Vice President Al Gore Jr.'s oft-repeated goal of eliminating 252,000 federal jobs over five years.

"There's more anger and more confusion and fear," explained Ms. Velazco, a 20-year veteran of the Social Security Administration's Muncie, Ind., office. Union members see their leaders entering "partnerships" with management and are demanding that their interests don't get sold in the name of cooperation, she said.

The Gore report on reinventing government "doesn't cast federal workers as the problem. However, it looked for efficiencies through the elimination of employees," she noted.

"We're being asked to be partners in the process," said Garret Anglin, an AFGE vice president from Vancouver, Wash., who will run against Mr. Sturdivant at the August 1994 convention. "It's up to the unions to take their traditional role -- act on behalf of the membership. . . ."

5l Some union members also distrust the troika of Mr. Sturdivant, Mr. Keener and Mr. Tobias, all of whom worked together for six days and nights to craft the executive orders that Mr. Gore promised would be implemented in exchange for the unions' backing of the Reinventing Government report.

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