Real Jobs, Real Money and Real Politics: Political Reality Hits Home for Feds

The political environment has changed dramatically for federal employees as unions speak out on their behalf. Most aren’t aware of the changes but they will be impacted by these changes.

Federal employees have been outside the political arena and above the rough and tumble world of politics for as long as any of us can remember. This was brought home to me when talking to a neighbor who worked for the city waterworks department. He was campaigning for his boss. I asked him if he enjoyed campaigning and he said he hated it. But he liked his job and if he wanted to keep it, he had to show he was a loyal team player. Campaigning wasn’t a legal requirement but it was a political reality.

I was a federal employee at the time and grateful for the Hatch Act. Regardless of who won the next election my job was secure and I wasn’t allowed to enter the political fray even if I had wanted to. 

What does this have to do with you? The federal government is changing. Your future may be more like that employee who works in your local city government than you think. 

Here’s why. 

If you were the president of the National Treasury Employees Union or the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, you can only dream about how much better your life would be if Al Gore were president. 

President Gore would speak at your union’s national convention. The new general counsel of the Federal Labor Relations Authority is quickly appointed and comes from a union counsel’s office. Your opinion on who should be the Secretary of Labor really matters. New members of the Merit Systems Protection Board are quickly appointed and philosophically attuned to employees’ concerns. And, best of all, the Democrats control Congress and you create a union shop in the federal government–where all federal employees pay dues bringing in millions of dollars a year to the union treasury. And the new President and Congress give Federal employees a 10% pay raise to thank them for their public support in electing the new Gore administration.

We don’t know if national union presidents have day-dreams like this or not. But who could blame them? They came so close. They worked hard for the Vice-President. They gave him their money and their time. They spoke out in favor of his great work. They worked within the relaxed Hatch Act restrictions to organize feds to work for their candidate.

Daydreams are expensive. 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. 

And it has often paid off. The unions can count on politicians who receive large donations to take up their positions in Congress whenever called upon to charge into the political debate on their behalf. 

Federal employee unions raised the political stakes for federal employees to a new level. It could have made these unions the richest, strongest and most influential unions in the country. It was a gamble. And, while the gamble did not pay off in this election cycle, there is a good chance it will pay off in future elections. What will happen in the meantime though could be decisive and have a long-term impact. Rolling the political dice could impact the careers of many federal employees in ways that no one can reasonably predict.

VP Al Gore didn’t win and the Republicans now control Congress. Playing in the political big leagues is heady stuff. Play hard, win and collect the rewards. Play hard, lose, and suffer the consequences. If you lose, the winner won’t like you. He certainly won’t reward you for helping his opponent. 

Perhaps Karl Rove, President Bush’s political strategist, didn’t notice the role played by the federal sector unions in the last election. Perhaps he did not know their leaders were speaking out vociferously against policies and programs of the Bush administration. Perhaps he thought they were harmless and couldn’t have an impact on the next presidential or congressional election. 

We doubt it. This top-notch political strategist did notice the role played by the unions. He probably does think federal employee unions and federal employees are no longer neutral in the political arena and they could play a role in the next election. And he probably doesn’t want that to happen. 

It isn’t accidental that the new Department of Homeland Security will have new personnel rules and won’t have unions with a guaranteed right to represent employees. It isn’t a coincidence that a new human resources system for the Department of Defense may be structured in the same way. And it may not be a coincidence if there is more contracting out of federal employee jobs. 

For the past 100 years, the concept of the federal civil service was to hire a professional workforce that helped the administration implement its policies and programs. It was intended to be a politically neutral workforce removed from vigorous political debates and elections. This system had its rough edges but it generally worked well. 

Federal employee unions changed the mixture. The unions provide leadership. They have successfully created a political power center with increasing influence, power and money. With less stringent restrictions on political activity (the Hatch Act redux), visible and active leadership by national union leaders speaking on behalf of employees, pooled financial resources for contributing to political campaigns, and the inevitable desire of organizations to increase their own power, the federal workforce is now a significant player in the political arena. Federal employees get the benefits of this if they win and they can suffer the consequences if they lose. 

Most federal employees are not politically active. Most are not active in a union and don’t pay union dues. Many employees think that actions of the unions don’t directly impact them. But 62% of federal employees are represented by unions (or they were represented before the creation of the Department of Homeland Security) because they are in a bargaining unit. This generally works out well for the employees. They get free lobbyists in Congress working on their behalf for higher wages, more benefits or more perks. 

But it is a two-edged sword. It also means that while an employee may not be a member of a union, that union still speaks on his behalf-whether he likes it or not, whether that employee voted for the union or whether an employee knows she is in a bargaining unit. Unions represent hundreds of thousands of federal employees and people listen to what they have to say. When they vociferously attack the administration and its policies, speak out in favor of political candidates and give money to politicians they are doing so in your name. If you don’t get involved in local union politics, you are still impacted. You get the benefits and may suffer the consequences of these actions. 

Most Feds do not see themselves as part of a political force. Most don’t actively participate in campaigns. But some federal employees were working in the public spotlight in the last presidential election for the former vice-president. Money from federal employees was going to political candidates on the name of all federal employees represented by unions. The politicians noticed the change. 

How federal employees see themselves doesn’t matter. For better or worse, all federal employees are part of the new political environment. You can count on stalwart Democrats to decry in Congress the changes occurring in the federal workforce. They won’t mention how much money they got in the last election from federal unions but they will sympathize greatly with your predicament if your job is contracted out and urge you to vote for them again since they understand your predicament. 

My prediction: Federal employees will look back a year from now and find it hard to believe they had the extensive appeal rights and job security they enjoyed over the past twenty-five years. Most employees won’t understand what happened to change their environment or their jobs and those speaking out on your behalf aren’t going to tell you beyond blaming someone else for your problems.

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