WASHINGTON -- Although President Clinton has been freezing pay and cutting government jobs, federal worker unions have yet to raise a protest. Some say the unions may soon cash in on their silence.
"They would have been screaming bloody murder in a Republican administration," said Nick Nolan, executive director of the Federal Government Service Task Force.
The unions are holding back their criticism, according to Mr. Nolan, because they enjoy an expanded role in the federal workplace under the Clinton administration, even participating in efforts to downsize government.
But in return for their cooperation, unions are hoping the White House will throw them a bone known as a union security clause that would allow the unions to get out of their responsibility to represent workers who are not dues-paying members.
"It's time for people to stop getting a free ride," John N. Sturdivant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told reporters last week at a briefing assessing the effort to downsize government.
The security clause issue is not expected to surface until the next session of Congress in January, when the Office of Personnel Management introduces its civil service legislative package.
In the meantime, three federal worker unions are lobbying for a "fee for service" plan that would allow unions to charge non-union employees to represent their complaints.
After all, says Mr. Nolan, "if the union is able to go in and negotiate, everyone benefits -- even the freeloaders."
The proposed law that would establish the security clause could also increase union membership rolls.
"If I have a grievance or a dispute that demands some type of legal service and I end up paying a few thousand dollars in fees, it would have been much cheaper for me to join a union at, say, $170 a year," explained George King, spokesman for the National Treasury Employees Union.
The unions also want federal workers to be required to join unions when they are first hired, or to be required to join a union if a certain percentage of employees at a specific agency sign up.
But opponents in Congress, led by Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf, have promised to fight any comprehensive plan.
In a letter to Vice President Al Gore, Mr. Wolf and 39 of his colleagues wrote, "We believe that compelling federal employees to join or contribute to a union is not in the best interest of federal employees or the nation. Federal employees should have the right to join or not to join a federal union."
At last week's briefing, union leaders said that the issue is not so simple.
"Legislating union security won't mean that all federal employees will be forced to join a union," said Robert Tobias, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.
He said a fee-for-service plan would be a "fair solution to a long-standing financial drain on federal unions whereby we must, by law, represent workers in our bargaining units even if they pay no money to support us. That's all it is."