Loss of Power and Members Impacts Union Solidarity

Several large unions have withdrawn from the AFL-CIO, taking with them millions of dollars and millions of members. Federal employee unions have experienced substantial losses in power and members also.

Labor unions, including those representing federal employees, almost always embrace Democrats running for office. For workers in the private sector, that may not have an immediate impact on their jobs, but for federal employees, who work for the person who becomes President of the United States, the situation may be different.

The civil service system is designed to be politically neutral and to work with the elected leader of our country to implement the policies of his administration. That has worked well for decades to the benefit of elected officials, American voters and for civil service employees. In fact, when unions were first recognized as a representative of federal employees by President Kennedy, unions were not thought of as being an adjunct of any political party but as a voice for employees regardless of who was in office. To highlight the neutrality of federal unions in those early years, President Nixon issued an executive order expanding the power of unions in government.

In recent years, federal employee unions have evolved. While it was expected unions would take a stand on issues important to federal employees, it is necessary to work with both parties to achieve these goals. But, as the unions became more ardent supporters of the Democratic Party, they moved beyond taking positions on specific issues. Instead, they have become an adjunct to one political party and can be counted on to employ their resources (i.e. federal employees and their donations) to attack one major party and to elect the Democratic candidate.

The disadvantage of this approach should be obvious. If the civil service structure is supposed to be politically neutral, having the representatives of federal employees actively working in political campaigns to defeat the person who is or who may become the new leader of these employees is not a workable situation. No doubt, supporters of the winning side would like to reward their political friends and weaken their political enemies. That is human nature and government employees in some local jurisdictions know how much this system puts their jobs in jeopardy. With the weakening of the Hatch Act and increasing visibility in national elections, federal employee unions have placed federal employees as the poster children for one side of the political brawl that occurs every four years.

Several large unions have now withdrawn from the AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization of unions formed in 1955. One reason for the split: disagreement on the extent to which unions have become aligned with the Democratic Party. The unions leaving are reportedly taking with them four million members and about $28 million of the annual budget for the umbrella organization. They are also leaving with the AFL-CIO strategy in tatters: a majority of the House and Senate are controlled by Republicans as well as the White House.

The largest federal union, the American Federation of Government Employees, is a member of the AFL-CIO. AFGE is still a staunch supporter of the AFL-CIO leadership and is not one of the unions that has left the coalition.

One major reason for the dissatisfaction with union leadership is that the drive to the left of center and increasing close relationship with one political party has not gained new members. In the private sector, only 7.9% of employees are represented by unions. The high tide for union membership was about 35% in 1954. Polls indicate that union members do not uniformly vote for one party so the time, energy and money spent by unions in support of one party does not coincide with the views of a sizable percentage of the people they represent. As a result, the actions taken by several AFL-CIO unions may ultimately strengthen the power of unions in American society if they choose to follow a different path on behalf of their members.

Federal employee unions have not fared well with their embrace of the Democratic Party either. For a number of years, OPM reported that the percentage of federal employees represented by unions was about 62%. Now, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, that figure has dropped to about 35% of the federal workforce.

John Mulholland was a national official for AFGE for a number of years who could deliver a speech with bluster and blarney the equal to any elected official. He gave numerous speeches arguing that federal employee unions needed a law to replace the executive order system because an executive order could be changed with the stroke of a pen and it took an Act of Congress to change a law. In effect, federal employees and federal employee unions would have more security once labor relations legislation was enacted.

John Mulholland was a bright guy and he was correct. But what he did not say, and what has happened, is that Congress will change the law if given enough incentive to do so. And federal employee unions have given politicians enough incentive to change the labor laws for federal employees.

Federal employees can count on unions to take a stand against most new policies initiated by the Bush Administration. Unfortunately, because of their close alignment with one political party, there is always doubt as to whether the union’s actions are based on political considerations or what may be best for the majority of the federal workforce.

It may be coincidental that legislation creating new federal agencies has resulted in significant loss of power for federal unions. Employees of the Departments of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense will soon be under much different personnel systems and, if there is a union representing them, their power to effect change will be significantly less than it was several years ago. Federal employees will have new and less effective appeal rights. The pay structure for these employees will also be changed. If the comments in various articles by FedSmith.com are any indication, these changes are, to put it mildly, not warmly embraced by federal employees.

A few million members of the AFL-CIO have apparently had enough of their representatives embracing one political party and spending money on political campaigns instead of recruiting new members or in other ways that may benefit members. Federal employee unions have not followed this lead but will apparently continue to follow the same path that has led to a 50% decline in numbers of represented employees and a corresponding loss of power for their organizations.

It may very well be that the continued political activity by unions will reward union leaders handsomely in 2009 if a Democrat becomes President and the House and Senate also return to control of the Democrats. Or, alternatively, their power may continue to decline along with membership if the trends of the last few elections continue. In either case, the elected representatives of federal employees are putting “civil servants” on a track of decreasing job security and increasing turbulence in a workforce that exists to help implement the policies of the administration elected by the American people–without regard to political affiliation.

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