Politics, Money, and Unions: Reality Strikes Home In the Department of Homeland Security

Federal employee unions gave big bucks to the Democrats in previous elections. Now that a Republican occupies the White House, it isn’t surprising that they don’t have much influence.

Paying Big Bucks to Politicians Has Its Rewards – and Its Drawbacks

The future of the new Department of Homeland Security hinges on a dispute regarding the status of Federal unions and civil service procedures. Most Americans don’t have a clue what the fight is about. They certainly don’t know that unions represent more than 60% of the Federal workforce.

The Bush administration considers these procedures a detriment to an efficient agency than can respond quickly to terrorist threats. It wants to put more emphasis on performance of employees and less emphasis on seniority. It wants to make sure the agency can accomplish its mission and isn’t much concerned with the future or reaction of public sector unions.

According to various news reports, Federal employee unions are “outraged” and “at a loss as to why it’s being discussed,” referring to proposals to give the President authority to move employees out of bargaining units based on national security issues.

The President’s position is reflected in the legislation passed by the House and the position of Federal unions is reflected in the Senate’s legislation.

The irony here is obvious. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which created the Federal labor relations system and many of the civil service protections, was supposed to create a more effective, efficient government. Obviously, the Administration doesn’t think it has happened. But the politics in 1977 were different. Federal employees were still largely above the political fray and Federal sector unions were chomping at the bit to have their status recognized in law and not just an executive order.

The Bush administration has a valid point. Negotiations involving transferring employees and functions can take months or even years-not a good system for acting rapidly to counteract terrorist threats. And, as any Federal human resources official knows, firing a Federal employee often requires thousands of hours and involving all levels of management in hopes that all the various appeal procedures can be fully satisfied.

The dispute is predictable, even if the unions claim to be “at a loss” to figure out why they find themselves in this predicament. Since the relaxation of the Hatch Act, Federal unions have gotten visibly more active in politics. They have given a lot of money and time to candidates and the vast majority of this time and money has gone to Democrats.

While the time union officials and Federal employees donated aren’t documented, the amount of dollars contributed is available from the Federal Election Commission (FEC). According to the FEC, in the 2000 election cycle, 90% of public sector union donations went to Democrats. AFGE and NTEU were among the largest donors from the Federal sector. AFGE gave $404,400 to the Democrats and $26,252 to Republicans. NTEU gave $308,550 to Democrats and $23,750 to Republicans.

To be more specific to the issue in dispute, one of the primary champions of the union’s position on the Department of Homeland Security is Steny Hoyer, a Democratic Congressman from Maryland. He is up for re-election this November. As of June 3, he has received $151,710 from public sector unions. He is a smart Congressman with a lot of Federal employees in his district and, undoubtedly, wants to keep those campaign dollars flowing. Not surprisingly, he has vigorously advocated the union’s position in the current debate.

Relaxation of the Hatch Act provisions will not be good for the majority of Federal employees in the long run. Civil servants who work at the local government level where they are “free” to campaign for politicians find that this political freedom often requires them to become active in campaigns supporting their boss if they want to keep their jobs. Federal employees, having been relieved of their “second class citizenship” frequently cited in the campaign to relax the Hatch Act, are now free to engage in certain political activities just as their counterparts are at the local level of the political heap.

This freedom may prove to be good for Federal employee unions who can promise cheap labor and votes just as they did in the last presidential election. But it is a two-edged sword. While the NTEU National President claims to be “at a loss” to figure out why the current Administration isn’t in favor of extending union bargaining to a new department, one reason seems obvious. Why would a rational politician help his political enemies who donated large sums of money and labor to help his opponent, particularly when he has a valid concern about the rationality of these procedures under any circumstances?

Political activity gave the unions “partnership” under the Clinton administration. While that process had its good points, it effectively gave unions more power by ignoring portions of the Civil Service Reform Act that preserved the ability of management to take action quickly and efficiently. Political activity would certainly have extended the concept of partnership to new heights had Al Gore become president.

Having visibly and enthusiastically supported the losing candidate, why should anyone be surprised or even “outraged” that politically active unions are now facing an administration that isn’t responsive to their concerns (or even their outrage)?

Moreover, while increased political activity may be good for unions wanting to elect politicians supporting greater legislated benefits for their labor organizations, it may not be good for Federal employees who want to have a productive career spanning several decades free from political coercion.

The issue in this debate at the national level is new. The fact that there is an issue was predictable. And it will become more frequent. Federal employee unions are big business. They have money and want more. They have the ability to influence elections. Both political parties recognize this and they are dealing with it. Federal employees are just the pawns in the game.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47