Obama's win still leaves federal workers on defense

Their star quarterback remains on the field, but federal employee unions will continue to play defense in Congress.

Labor leaders cheered the re-election of President Barack Obama, yet with no significant congressional changes — particularly in the House — they will fight the same battles.

"President Obama's re-election is a victory not only for the country but for federal employees in particular, who would have suffered in countless ways under a Romney administration," J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said during a telephone news conference the day after the election.

"But make no mistake — even though our preferred candidate has won re-election, we are under no illusion that the next four years will be a walk in the park."

Far from it.

The House remains under the control of conservative Republicans, who have made sport of legislative proposals targeting the federal workforce. Whether Obama's victory moderates that remains to be seen.

Top items on federal employees' agenda include avoiding a fall off the fiscal cliff and making up lost ground.

A freeze on basic federal pay rates, enacted in late 2010, was supposed to last two years, through 2012. It has since been extended through March. Employees know they aren't going to recoup the money they've lost, but they're trying hard to get a proposed 0.5 percent increase — set possibly for April — made retroactive to January 2013.

"That's one of our goals," Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in an interview. "We want it implemented retroactive to January, when it should have been under the original ... president's proposal."

There is precedent for a retroactive raise: Congress approved a 4.1 percent increase on Jan. 22, 2004, retroactive to the first pay period that month.

Kelley, Cox and other leaders of worker organizations also might have to field a strong defense to protect employee retirement benefits, an area previously in the sights of the White House and Congress.

Congressional Republicans wanted a greater increase in employee retirement contributions than did the Obama administration, but they agreed in principle. Eventually, Congress approved — and the president accepted — an increase in contributions made by employees hired after Jan. 1. An exception was made for hires who had five years of prior federal service.

That lost ground won't be made up.

Cox repeatedly returned to the retirement contribution issue during his call. The AFGE wants Obama to confirm that "there is no need to increase federal retirement contributions," he said. "That system is fully funded. There is no need for that. That would actually result in a pay cut for federal employees."

With the pay freeze and the retirement contributions changes, federal employees have already sacrificed to boost the nation's coffers, said Joseph A. Beaudoin, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE).

"As we come to the edge of the fiscal cliff and the start of the lame-duck session of Congress, the stakes are higher than ever for federal workers and retirees," he warned.

The cliff — $500 billion in automatic tax increases and budget cuts scheduled to take effect in January unless Congress acts — would hurt everyone, especially federal employees.

"Both President Obama and members of Congress talked about shared sacrifice while on the campaign trail, and that's what we at NARFE are asking for now," Beaudoin added. "Federal employees have contributed more than $75 billion [over 10 years] toward getting our country's fiscal standing back on track. We hope the president will defend federal workers and retirees from the waves of unfair attacks that incorrectly painted civil servants as the cause of our nation's fiscal problems."

Although cautious about the future, union leaders were in a celebratory mood over Obama's win. They know that whatever disagreements they have had with the Obama White House, their situation would be more difficult had Mitt Romney won.

William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said, "This was a momentous victory for the President," who "has taken innovative approaches to improving workforce morale, efficiency, and productivity. All the while, he went above the call of duty to keep employees and their representatives involved in the decision-making process."

Union leaders will make sure the voices of federal employees are heard during the decision-making process, but they won't be the deciders.

They do, however, have a supporter in the White House for another four years.

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