Political Reality, Federal Employee Unions and the Financial Future of Federal Employees

The “Federal Employee Accountability Act of 2011” would eliminate federal employee union representatives from getting their federal salary while representing a union. The sponsor says it would save about $600 million over five years.

As federal employee unions become more active in using their time, money and public relations facilities to support their favorite candidates (almost always Democrats), it isn’t too surprising that the unions that represent the politically neutral federal workforce become a target when Republicans gain power in Congress or the White House.

Official time is a term used to describe a federal employee who works on behalf of a union but continues to receive full pay and benefits, just as if the person were doing the work of the federal job for which he or she was hired.

The reality is that no one knows the actual figure of the cost of providing “official time” to union officials. In some cases, a union official continues to receive full federal pay and benefits while 100% of the individual’s time at work is devoted to union activities.

We do know that the cost is in the hundreds of millions although the actual number of “hundreds of millions” each year isn’t known and tracking the time spent on union activities is a figure that agencies do not like to track for a variety of reasons. (See OPM’s Closely Held Report of Union Official Time Use)

Official time is given to federal employee union representatives under the provisions of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Section 7131 of this law reads:

“Any employee representing an exclusive representative in the negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement under this chapter shall be authorized official time for such purposes, including attendance at impasse proceeding, during the time the employee otherwise would be in a duty status. The number of employees for whom official time is authorized under this subsection shall not exceed the number of individuals designated as representing the agency for such purposes.”

A new bill would do away with this provision in its entirely.

Entitled “The Federal Employee Accountability Act of 2011,” Congressman Phil Gingrey (R-GA) says that the bill would save the federal government some $600 million over five years.

No doubt, whether this money spent on official time is a wise or foolish expenditure will depend on the perspective of the individual reader. Some will see the money as helping to significantly increase an agency’s expenses by paying a union to seek out and file more grievances, appeals, filing more (expensive) cases against agencies. Others see the cost of providing official time as beneficial by improving the morale of the workforce and finding and bringing to light problems that exist at the workplace.

Political Reality

What is undoubtedly at issue in Congress, however, is that the federal workforce is increasingly moving in a direction of being seen as a political force in national elections. While this may sound good, it also means employment and employment benefits are more subject to prevailing political winds. When organizations that represent federal employees are viewed by political officials as instruments to help elect one political party, there are going to be advantages to the union from politicians that owe their political success, in part, to the unions that helped elect them.

The flip side is that there will be disadvantages if elected officials win despite the attempts by federal employee unions to ensure their political demise.

Most federal employees work hard and do their jobs regardless of which political party is in power. Moreover, comments from readers and the results of our informal survey on this site demonstrate that federal employees represent a wide variety of political views and do not always care about the actions or political positions taken by the unions that represent many readers.

Public employee unions are now seen in a less favorable light. A new Rasmussen Reports national survey shows that 45% of Americans now at least somewhat favor unions for public employees, while the identical number (45%) are opposed to them. These findings include 21% who Strongly Favor such unions versus 30% who are Strongly Opposed to them.

As this bill demonstrates, elected politicians are very much aware of how federal unions can use their money and power to damage the future election prospects of a Member of Congress and to use their money and power as an advantage for one political party. Unions are also increasingly being seen as having a negative impact on the future welfare of all Americans. These trends may not a good harbinger of the financial future of federal employees.

The chances of “The Federal Employee Accountability Act of 2011” becoming law is remote. It may pass the House. It has a lesser chance of passing in the Senate and President Obama would most likely veto it in any event.

The federal workforce is designed to be a professional and politically neutral workforce. Federal employees work for the American public and, as appointed federal employees, individual federal employees are not subject to getting or losing jobs depending on the outcome of an election. The Hatch Act places restrictions on political behavior but also emphasizes the political neutrality that is intended for this body of workers.

A Perfect Storm

We know there are indications that the pay and benefits for the federal workforce may be trimmed, such as the recommendations of the deficit commission. (See Deficit Commission Recommends Freezing Federal Salaries, Changing Retirement Calculations) And, as an indicator of how some in Congress view the federal workforce and their elected representatives, this bill demonstrates that the federal workforce is increasingly seen as a political enemy by officials who have an impact on their federal careers.

The chances of this new bill becoming a law are remote. But, when the mood in Congress is to cut back on federal spending, and Congress is seeking ways to reduce expenses, this bill indicates that at least some in Congress will not hesitate to vote in ways that may be harmful to the financial future of civil servants.

As bills that impact the federal workforce advance in Congress, we will strive to keep readers advised of the bill and their content so that you will be able to contact your elected representatives if you choose to do so.

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