Union president: Federal work a target for 'wing nuts,' but still a viable career choice

John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, has announced he will retire in August after leading the politically powerful union for the past nine years. The Baltimore resident, who is 66, has battled with Congress and the White House over recent cuts to the federal workforce.

A Pittsburgh native, Gage was a minor-league catcher in the Orioles organization in the late 1960s. He worked for the Social Security Administration in the 1970s as a disability claims examiner.


Last year, Gage helped the AFGE win the right to represent nearly 50,000 Transportation Security Administration screeners. He is now under pressure to negotiate a contract for those workers quickly.

The union represents 625,000 employees across the country and has more than 277,000 dues-paying members, including about 16,000 who live in Maryland.


With the potential cuts and very real animosity directed at the federal workforce these days, would you still advise a young person or recent college graduate to take a job with the federal government?

I think the federal government has tremendous opportunity for young people and not so young people, too. There's a tremendous diversity of interests and types of jobs in the federal government, which has always tried to be an employer of choice. It truly is a career choice that I still think is very viable and attractive to young people.

What did you take away from the unsuccessful [and labor-supported] recall attempt of Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin? Some might say it was an indication that the public at large doesn't agree with the arguments being made by public sector labor leaders.

It was nothing earth shattering. Someone picked a fight with us and we stood up to them and I think that some of the reactionary governors might pay attention: If they try to take away workers' rights, if they try to take away union rights, they're going to have a fight.

But it's a fight he won.

Labor has a way of not going away on fights. … I have to laugh when people talk about the unions being weak. Someone must think we're strong — that's why we're attacked so much. With the anti-union movement, I think these are really challenging times for us, but we've been through challenging times before.

You've also had fights with Democrats — particularly President Obama, who imposed a two-year wage freeze in 2011 and agreed to require new federal employees to contribute more to their pensions. How well has this administration managed its workforce? Are employees better off or worse off under Obama?

Certainly on pay and on benefits we're not better off. I've criticized the president on his negotiating tactics, coming out and just going after the deficit. I don't think [the pay freeze] did much for the deficit. It did hurt federal employees. ... I thought that was a very bad move because it reinforced a number of wrong perceptions about federal employees, that they are overpaid and their benefits are too high.


To say that, "Well, federal employees, they have a decent job and I don't and therefore take that job away or reduce the pay and the benefits," that's really the wrong approach. I think the president should have come out much stronger and said, "No, we have to build up the private sector." I think he should have taken on this cannibalism that, "If I don't have something, nobody else should have it either." That supports this classic race to the bottom that we're in now.

But I think he has appointed some pretty good people to run some of these agencies. I think they're pretty classy [he mentions Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano]. There were some big leaguers and they have open communications, which were totally closed during the Bush years. It's a mixed bag with federal employees, but it always is. We're an easy target for a lot of the wing nuts and people who really don't have a good grasp of what the government is.

Getting the TSA screeners was a big win for the AFGE. Do you think that will be a defining part of your legacy? And how confident are you that you can wrap up contract negotiations for those workers before you step down in August?

I'm certainly working every day on it. I'm cautiously optimistic we're going to be able to get something done before my term is up but even after my term is up I'm probably going to stay on this contract [if needed] until it's finished. It's been a long fight, about nine years.

And legacy?

The federal government is a right-to-work employer — an open shop — so people do not have to be union members. The Lunch & Learn program [a lunchtime recruiting program Gage created] has really become an important meeting with employees to talk about the issues affecting them and for recruiting. It has resulted in about 75,000 new members. … I've also tried to transition to having a more professional representational face to our union. When I started we probably had eight or nine attorneys. Now we have over 40. I believe that when one of our members gets into an administrative matter … that if management has an attorney, then employees should, too. That professionalization went a long way toward convincing people to be members of AFGE.