Rating the “Clout Index” of Federal Employee Unions

Here is a “clout index” of several federal unions.

Federal employees work in a political environment. Pay and benefits are determined through the political process.

A recent poll showed that most readers are disdainful of Congressional ethics. But, having said that, the actions Congress takes (or does not take) will impact your take home pay and employee benefits. So, regardless of what you may think of the ethics of donating money to Congressional representatives, that is how the current system works and some organizations obviously believe the money is well spent to be able to get the attention of the nation’s legislators.

As the representative of many federal employees, labor unions are the most obvious conduit for money to flow from federal employees to the Congressmen who can influence the legislative process. The figures below are only for several unions that represent federal government employees outside of the US Postal Service.

The most recent example of how having friends in Congress can help occurred last week. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the air traffic controller’s association (NATCA) are bargaining on a new contract. The union has legislative authority to neogtiate on pay—one of the few federal employee unions with that authority.

The union apparently does not like where the negotiations are heading and it appears the agency may send Congress the final proposal it makes to the union. At that point, Congress can intervene within 60 days if it chooses to do so. If no action is taken, the final agency proposal becomes the new contract.

But in the midst of negotiations, the union found three supporters in Congress that have proposed to change the bargaining process. It isn’t easy to get a bill introduced in Congress to meet your specific needs at an opportune moment—but NATCA was able to do so. The bill would require the parties to go to an arbitrator for a final solution rather than submitting the agency’s final proposal to Congress. Anyone knowledgeable of labor relations knows this is likely to be a much better deal for the union—especially with a Republican Congress—as arbitrators are inclined to give each side some part of what they are proposing. If the proposal goes to the current Congress, the union is more likely to get only what the agency has proposed.

Which raises the question: How much do federal employee unions spend in Congressional races to increase their clout with Congress? In other words, what is the “clout index” for some of the major federal employee unions?

Here is a rough breakdown. The figures are from the 2004 election cycle. The figures are compiled from Federal Election Commission (FEC) data. Our clout index is taken by dividing the number of members (supplied by unions to the Department of Labor) into the political donations of the federal employee unions (based on FEC figures).

Here is the relative clout index of the these federal employee unions. The figures are explained in more detail below the chart.

Union Members Donations Clout Index
NATCA 14794 $2,653,298 179.35
AFGE 226599 $788,455 3.48
NTEU 77806 $566,485 7.28

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) describes itself as the largest federal employee union. And, according to the report it filed with the Labor Department, AFGE had 226,599 members at the end of the 2004 reporting period, But, while it has the most members, AFGE did not donate the most money to political campaigns.

In the 2004 election cycle, AFGE donated $788,455. 84% of the money went to individual Democrats and 16% went to Republicans. (As with all of these PAC’s, some of the money did not go directly to candidates but went to other organizations such as the Democratic National Committee.)

The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) is a smaller union as it had 77,806 members in 2004 according to its filing with the Department of Labor. It donated $566,485 to political organizations during the 2004 election cycle. 85% of its money went to individual Democrats running for office and 15% went to individual Republican candidates (other money went to a variety of political organizations).

The biggest kid on this block as far as PAC contributions: The National Air Traffic Controller’s Association. It only has 14,794 members but its clout may be much larger than its membership numbers would indicate.

NATCA spent $2,653,298 in the 2004 election cycle. Of the amount that went to individual candidates, 65% went to Democrats and 35% went to Republicans. Presumably, this union has more resources as the average salary of controllers is now approximately $166,000 according to the FAA and the union’s proposal would raise the total compensation package for each controller to over $200,000. (The union contests these figures; in any event, the employees represented make considerable salaries and stand to gain financially as a result of the current labor negotiations.)

And, in view of the legislative initiative submitted last week to help the union in its negotiations, how much went to those helping the union in its negotiations? Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) received $10,000. Another $5000 went to Senator Frank Lautenburg (D-NJ) and $4000 went to Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) according to FEC data.

A much larger amount went to an organization called Democratic GAIN ($100,000) with another $25,000 to the Democratic Leadership Council. The remainded of the 2.6 million or so went to a variety of candidates and organizations.

Was the money worth it? While $2.6 million is a lot of money, it may still turn out to be a good deal for the union’s members. The employees the union represents could end up with a considerable pay increase.

The FAA says that the union’s proposal would cost the taxpayers an extra $2.6 billion over the life of the contract. The union vehemently disputes those figures but, regardless of the final tally, it looks like the union could receive a substantial increase in pay for members. If the union were to get its proposal accepted in whole or in part by an arbitrator, the money spent on campaign donations would probably turn out to be a good investment for NATCA–but to do that it is likely to require getting Congress to change the bargaining procedures in the latter stages of bargaining the new contract.

The “clout index” of this particular union is certainly high; whether it is high enough to win over a Republican Congress remains to be seen.

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