Four More Years–Despite The Best Efforts of Federal Employee Unions

Federal employee unions worked hard to elect John Kerry. What happens next?

Federal employee union leaders have been speaking out on behalf of federal employees the past few months and often vociferously attacking President Bush in the process.

For union leaders, a victory by John Kerry would have been a heady time. Their personal power would be solidified and access to high level politicians they helped to elect would probably an ego trip most of us will never enjoy.

The last time this worked out, Bill Clinton came into office and gave the federal unions “partnership” with federal agencies. Meetings with the vice-president and even the president were not uncommon. The nation’s leaders came to union conventions and, with the sincerity we have come to expect from our national leaders, sang the praises of those who gave them money and worked to get them elected.

Local and national union officials were living high with more power and influence and, in some cases, perhaps even co-managing agencies. That, at least, was the view of some managers who saw the process as a negative experience.

But what happens when a labor organization that is presumably speaking out for the federal employees who elected them as a representative issues a nonstop series of harsh attacks on the president–and the president wins anyway?

In a recent poll taken by, readers identified themselves as Republicans or Democrats in roughly equal numbers. Most of our readers are active or retired federal employees. While more readers said they were voting for Kerry than for Bush, the margin was not overwhelming and the vote for both candidates was much closer than it was in states like New York or Massachusetts. It’s a fairly balanced picture overall with a lot of support for both candidates.

But perception is often reality and labor unions have created the perception of a huge monolithic federal workforce working hard and spending money to elect John Kerry.

Now that this huge monolithic work force is still working for George Bush, is there a good chance the administration will notice that the civil servants working for him (or at least their elected representatives) did everything they could to take away his job?

In theory, the federal civil service is a professional work force with a high degree of job security. Federal employees stay on the job and work to implement the policies of whichever administration is in power. That has worked well for over a century. Federal employees don’t lose their jobs as a result of an election–that is the theory at least.

But what happens now? Will the administration forgive and forget? Will high level officials see a distinction between the rank and file federal employee who may have voted for George Bush and the union officials who have been castigating them and using the name and reputation of federal employees to throw the administration out of office?

John Gage, the National President of AFGE, reminated to the Washington Post: “We are going to have a lot of problems.” Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, was quoted in the Post “I think they will try to decrease the role of unions in the federal workplace.” Both were presumably talking primarily about the impact of the election on the organizations they represent.

Here are a few other possibilities. While these may not be personal problems for national union presidents who have been traveling around the country attacking your boss, you may also see more efforts to contract out federal jobs. Pay for performance and rules making it easier to fire federal employees may quickly become a reality for most of the federal workforce. Future pay raises, already smaller than you may have liked, may not be forthcoming in future years.

Will the unions have much influence in the new personnel systems going into place in the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security? That may depend on the political appointees in those agencies–all of whom will owe their jobs to the president and may not have appreciated the very public efforts to get the guy fired.

Playing politics at the national level can be very rewarding to the winners. It can be devastating to the losers. Federal employees have traditionally not been winners or losers at the game–they just went out and did a professional job for the winner and helped implement the policies and programs of the administration. The federal civil service was conceived to be and operated as an apolitical and generally uncontroversial arm of government.

The Bush administration took big steps to dismantle the long standing civil service structure during the first four years of the administration. Most of the ideas have not yet been implemented. No doubt some of these ideas are good and will create a more efficient workforce. But some of the new systems are likely to make federal employees less secure in their jobs. Some of the new systems will make it easier to contract out jobs being performed by federal employees. Some of the ideas will make it easier to reward a few employees at the expense of others. Some of the new systems will drastically curtail or eliminate the role of unions in representing employees. Some of the new rules will dramatically change appeal rights for federal employees.

Most of the American public won’t know or care what happens to your job or your pay as a federal employee. The people who stand to benefit the most are those who may look at the federal workforce and see a monolothic demographic group that only works for Democrats.

Perhaps intense campaigning with harsh rhetoric on behalf of John Kerry was a good idea. Perhaps the efforts of the federal unions to disparage the president and elect John Kerry will work to the benefit of all federal employees. Federal employee unions do many good things for federal employees. A lot of good people work hard to improve benefits and working conditions for federal employees. But from our current vantage point, it isn’t obvious why involving the workforce in the morass and controversy of national elections is a good idea or how it will have a positive impact on most of the federal workforce.

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