“The Emperor Has No Clothes”

What will it take for federal employee unions to try a more bipartisan approach in playing politics at the national level?

When someone has the audacity to criticize an institution, there is bound to be a reaction from those supporting it.

Some people just don’t like criticism and quickly react with a response that is roughly akin to “if you aren’t with us, you are against us” type of response.

Here is one example. During the past few months, we have published several articles on the topic of federal employee unions and their enthusiastic embrace of the Democratic party.

The columns generated strong responses with a variety of views. Some readers think the unions’ partisan approach of invariably supporting Democratic candidates is harmful to the federal workforce; some readers said essentially the unions have no option other than supporting Democratic candidates because they don’t like the Republican point of view; some used the articles as an opportunity to veer away for the subject and commented on why they support or dislike specific political candidates; and some readers thought the articles were unwarranted “anti-union” criticism of federal employee unions that ignored all the great things the unions have done for federal employees.

And, predictably, some of the comments we did not post because the profanity or generally unprofessional tenor of the comments do not, in our opinion, contribute to a useful discussion of any issue.

Some of the comments were factually correct in describing my background as one that does not include ever having been a labor union leader or union official. Fair enough. But a union is a business that lives or dies based on its success in gaining new members or at least ensuring a revenue stream that enables the organization to continue in existence.

Any business needs to periodically question its approach and evaluate whether it is succeeding in its mission or if it needs to make changes if it is going to survive. Having run a business, I know from experience that objectively assessing the way a business is run, and questioning the competence of those who are making the business decisions can be a painful experience.

No one wants to make changes or to criticize those in charge. But, like the fable in which a young child innocently states an obvious fact that others are ignoring when stating “the emperor has no clothes,” here is a fact that should be obvious, but is seldom voiced in public: federal employee unions are destroying themselves with their partisan approach to politics.

Here is a short list of the obvious results of this approach to embracing one political party at the expense of the other.

The Transportation Security Administration was established under President Bush and added tens of thousands of new federal employees–these employees are barred from being represented by unions.

Employees in the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security are not going to be represented by unions with any significant bargaining authority. Moreover, the appeals processes, pay structure and human resources system are being restructured in ways that are generating howls of protest from federal employee unions and fear among some employees who fear their federal career path will be diminished.

Employees in the Department of Defense are going down the same path as employees in Homeland Security. With the changes in DHS and DOD, federal employee unions have lost most of the gains they may have made since the passage of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 for more than 50% of the federal workforce.

Or, if one looks at the situation from another perspective, what happened when the partisan approach to politics was a “success?” Federal unions supported the Democrats and Bill Clinton was in office for eight years. One of his biggest accomplishments was reducing the federal workforce to its lowest level since the Kennedy Administration.

The unions did gain access to the corridors of power. Nationally known politicans spoke at union conventions. President Clinton issued an executive order giving the unions “partnership” with federal agencies. No one was certain what “partnership” meant or required, but it didn’t last long anyway. Shortly after the Republicans took over in the White House, the executive order was revoked and the unions’ race to oblivion has been picking up speed ever since.

Even within the union movement, some unions are beginning to question whether being an adjunct of the Democratic party is a good idea. Last week the Washington Times quoted the political director of the Teamsters Union as saying “We think we have to be more bipartisan. One of the problems is that we are seen as being totally committed to one party. There are Democrats who take us for granted and Republicans who we think we have a chance to work with who don’t reach out to us because they think they don’t have a chance with us.”

We don’t know what new options, if any, the national leadership of federal employee unions may be considering in how they choose to represent federal employees or how they present the image of the federal workforce to America’s taxpayers.

But if they are not formulating and presenting dramatic changes to their members, the members should seriously consider the dismal results of the past few years and look for someone with the vision that can move beyond the current rhetoric and strategy.

Alternatively, the unions can try again with the same approach in 2008. Perhaps a Democrat will win this time and, perhaps, that will lead to changes that will be more lasting and more successful for the unions. But one has to wonder how long the unions will continue down the current path before asking whether a different approach may be more beneficial.

No doubt, some readers will see criticism as “anti-union rhetoric.” Label it any way you want. My experience in business (and in government) was that the best advice I ever received was often that which I least wanted to hear and from those who were not always my closest friends.

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