Change in Government: Barack Obama’s Letters to AFGE President John Gage: Part 2

This is the second part of changes that Senator Barack Obama says will occur in agencies under his administration. In letters to AFGE’s National President, the future president outlines priorities for major departments during his term of office.

On October 20, just weeks before the election, Sen. Barack Obama sent six letters to John Gage.  These letters address concerns, apparently raised by Mr. Gage with then Candidate Obama.  In the prior article (Ralph, Please link), we looked at the letters to DOL, EPA and HUD, now let’s see what the others say about SSA, TSA and VA.

Social Security Administration

In this letter, Senator Obama:

  • Says he agrees with AFGE President John Gage that increased funding for the SSA administrative expenses is necessary and that more staff is also warranted.
  • Blamed underfunding for SSA’s huge backlog in SSA disability claims (more than twice that of October 2000).
  • Made clear that he continues to strongly oppose Social Security privatization.

Transportation Security Administration

In this letter, then "Candidate" Obama:

  • promised to work to ensure that Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) have collective bargaining rights and a voice at work to address issues that arise locally and nationally.
  • stated that "collective bargaining rights ensure that federal agencies run as effectively as possible and are able to focus on protecting our national security. Collective bargaining agreements also provide an excellent structure to address issues such as a fair promotion system, the scheduling of overtime, shift rotation, health and safety improvements, parking, child care and public transportation subsidies. By addressing these day-to-day issues in a manner that is both functional and fair, I believe the unacceptably high attrition rate of TSOs will improve and more TSOs will remain on the job resulting in the career, professional, and highly trained workforce the public and Congress demanded following the terrible events of September 11th."
  • calling it flawed, expressed his support  for re-examining Performance Accountability and Standards System (PASS) for TSOs to determine whether it meets minimum standards of fairness, transparency, and accountability. He hinted that moving TSOs to the General Schedule was an alternative. If it does not, we should replace it with the General Schedule.
  • saying that waste and mismanagement was documented at TSA, promised to move TSA under the same contracting rules as apply to other Federal Agencies.
  • decried the $1.2 billion sole source contracting for human services and promised to allow current TSA employees to compete for that work.

Development of Veterans Affairs

In this letter, Mr. Obama;

  • calls for reform of the way VA is funded, specifically seeking out year budgeting.  Apparently similar to the way DOD funds weapons systems development.
  • deplored VA’s initial plans to contract out work under the new law expanding GI benefits and expressed his belief that VA had reversed that process and would manage the program in-house.
  • promised to address VA personnel policies that he says "have greatly eroded the Title 38 collective bargaining rights of nurses and doctors and other providers who work in VA medical facilities. The VA’s interpretation of these rights circumvents congressional intent and weakens its ability to recruit and retain an adequate workforce to care for the men and women who have sacrificed in service of our nation and our freedom. Collective bargaining rights are fundamental for our workforce and will help ensure quality health care delivery. I also pledge that my administration’s nominees will have a clear understanding of Title 38 collective bargaining rights."

Will He Deliver on His Promises?

A friend of mine points out that, while running, candidates own the solutions for the problems of government, once elected, they own the problems as well.

Candidate Obama ran and was presumably elected on his offer of real change in government.  He called for accountability and transparency.  In his letters to AFGE President Gage, he either states or infers that employee representatives are to be part of the solution but also clearly states that the prime goal is an Agency fix.

As the new President reverses the labor relations strategy of the Bush administration, his welcome by the unions will be warm. But what if he discovers, as others have, that the single largest cost for most Agencies is labor and that to free up money for change, hard personnel decisions must be made?  Not only hard, but unappealing to the unions as well.

Reality bites. Anyone who has ever sat in a chair as an Agency chief negotiator knows that Federal unions strongly reflect a pervasive employee abhorrence of change. Change is uncomfortable. It shakes our sense of security. It is broadly claimed, and perhaps more true than not, that  Federal employees enter or stay in government for the stability government service provides. President Elect Obama and his appointees come to government with a sweeping agenda for change. Change, by definition, rocks stability. When the President’s appointees get to see the world as agency chief negotiators experience it by pushing change, we’ll see if the union is still their friend.

I’ve been told by an EPA employee, for example, that there are more than two sides of the library closure issue cited in the letter to AFGE. My source says that virtually all the material in the library is available electronically and is, in fact, more accessible to EPA employees nationally in electrons than in pages taking up space in DC. Further, that AFGE’s concern appears more job protection more than information access.

If true, how will Obama the manager versus Obama the candidate address the issue?  If it is a case of 21st century featherbedding, will an Obama EPA Administrator take on the union in the interest of an efficient government or buy labor peace by keeping open a throwback to a less technological time? Change hurts and change that hurts me hurts even more.

If he carries through on his campaign promises, perhaps the government will become an equal opportunity reformer.  He has set himself a tough row to hoe. Every Congressman, Senator, interest group, association, corporation, or union has vested interests in some part of the status quo. If his promises to examine agencies and make them more accountable and transparent are kept, perhaps his administration will have the result of making Federal labor organizations accountable and transparent as well, at least to his administration. I guess we’ll see whether that’s a good or bad thing.

Any opinion rendered, or as more often the case inferred, is mine and mine alone.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.