Union leaders brace for fights with Congress

Tony Reardon and J. David Cox Sr. have more than 800,000 federal workers counting on them.

The men lead the two largest unions representing federal workers, and they spend their days trying to make sure their members are treated properly when it comes to salaries, benefits and retirement.


Reardon was just elected president last month of the 150,000-member National Treasury Employees Union, replacing longtime NTEU leader Colleen M. Kelley, while Cox just won a second term as president of the 670,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, or AFGE.

Both say their top priority over the next several months will be battling a Republican-led Congress that's attempting to pass legislation that they say is unfriendly to federal workers. And they're looking toward the 2016 election, in hopes of electing a pro-union president and supportive members of Congress.


"The current Congress has not been overly friendly to federal employees," said Reardon, a 25-year veteran of the NTEU.

Cox, who worked as a registered nurse with the Department of Veterans Affairs, called the current Congress "very hostile."

"We understand we're going to have our battles with the House and the Senate. Tough battles. We're prepared for it," he said.

Proposals floating around Congress to which the unions object include attempts to keep IRS employees from joining a union, to cut the budget of the National Labor Relations Board, to make it easier to fire poorly performing workers at the VA, and to require greater employee contributions to their pensions.

"The Republicans look for every issue to knock down any government employee and particularly government employee unions," Cox said.

To fight the Republican proposals, Cox said, he needs to muster the forces of his hundreds of thousands of members. He needs to get them active in calling their representatives and talking about how hard they work.

Too often, Cox said, federal workers are criticized as lazy, inefficient or too costly. In reality, he said, federal workers often don't command large salaries while they perform vital tasks, such as protecting the country's border, giving medical treatment to veterans and inspecting the nation's food supply.

"We're going to have them out there mobilized in every state and every territory in the United States. We're going to be out there telling our story," Cox said.


At NTEU, Reardon said he also will be getting members involved, including improving communication with local chapter leaders.

"I think it's really through that increased engagement that we're really going to be able to outline what is most meaningful to them and what the most important priorities are," he said.

The House of Representatives passed a bill this year that would make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to demote or fire employees based on poor performance.

Bill sponsor Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said the VA too often shuffles around problem employees instead of holding them accountable.

The VA, which has struggled with the scandal of long wait times that were covered up, needs to regain the trust of the public, Miller said.

"The department's overwhelming lack of accountability in the wake of the VA scandal is precisely the type of situation that makes the average citizen lose faith in their government," he said


AFGE says the bill will "destroy the due process rights" of VA employees.

President Barack Obama has said he'll veto the bill if it reaches his desk, but the union plans to fight it in the Senate so it doesn't make its way to the president.

The unions also believe some in Congress are intent on union busting. The leaders cite attempts to prevent IRS employees from being represented by the National Treasury Employees Union.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, wrote in a report this spring that he thinks it's impossible for IRS employees to be truly independent and nonpartisan if they belong to a union.

"It is virtually impossible for the IRS to maintain the reality, much less the appearance, of neutrality and fairness to all taxpayers, when a substantial number of IRS employees are members of the highly partisan and left-leaning National Treasury Employees Union," he wrote.

Hatch noted that more than 90 percent of the NTEU's political action committee donations went to Democrats during the last two presidential election cycles. Individual IRS employees give to Democratic candidates far more often than Republican candidates, he said.


Republicans also have moved to cut the budget for the National Labor Relations Board.

Rep. Tom Cole, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the NRLB budget, said the cuts were part of a "fiscally responsible bill."

The unions also expect to be entangled in the looming budget impasse between Congress and the White House. In recent years, employees have had pay freezes while paying more into their pensions and for health insurance. They also live with the uncertainty of whether there will be a government shutdown or another round of sequestration.

"Sequestration is only asleep right now and it's fixing to wake up," Cox said. "Congress has to step up to the job and appropriate money and run the government."

Cox said the uncertainty felt by federal employees affects the whole economy because it makes them less likely to buy new homes and cars.

Reardon said uncertainty about shutdowns and sequestration compounds another problem caused by lack of pay increases — the difficulty in recruiting and retaining federal employees.


Federal employees are increasingly frustrated that their agencies don't have the money to do their jobs properly, Reardon said. Some are souring on the notion of public service.

Both unions also plan to focus on avoiding long-lasting damage from breaches that exposed the private information of millions of federal employees, retirees and job applicants.

The union leaders are not impressed with the Office of Personnel Management's handling of the incidents so far. They say it has taken OPM far too long to notify employees who have been affected. The unions are pushing for lifetime identity theft monitoring and insurance.

Both unions have sued the Office of Personnel Management over the data breach.

"Federal employees need to feel comfortable that when they are required to provide information to be employed by the federal government, they are protected," Reardon said. "People aren't going to want to work there if they don't think the government can protect their identities and information."

Cox and his wife were among those whose information was exposed in the hack, so he's experienced firsthand the difficulties in getting information.


"They didn't bother to inform the American public or the employees," he said. "Then they were slow in the response."

Both union leaders are looking forward to the 2016 elections. They hope to elect more union-friendly politicians to Capitol Hill and the White House.

Once the unions pick their favored candidates, members from the president down to the local chapters will be involved in campaigning over the next year.

"I always hope we can have a Congress that's more open to the plight of federal employees and federal employee issues," Reardon said.