Negotiating Federal Salary: How Do Negotiated Pay Levels in Agencies Compare to the Average Federal Salary?

Recent articles have indicated that federal employees are not represented by unions that negotiate wages. Is this true?

This article is co-authored by Ralph Smith and Bob Gilson

Recent articles in the national press (such as this one) have indicated that federal employees receive a salary based on whatever Congress and the President decide to pay them. The gist of the articles is that federal employees do not have a system where unions negotiate salaries or benefits on their behalf.

While this is generally true, it is not accurate and feeds the general mis-perception about the federal salary structure.

With the gradual splintering of the federal salary structure over the past two decades, there are agencies that have been given legislative authority to create a pay system outside of the long established general schedule covering most federal employees.

In some of these other systems, federal employee unions do negotiate wages. Employees outside of the bargaining units, including those who negotiate the wage levels for the agencies, also benefit from the higher salary levels in their own compensation.

Comparing GS Salary Levels With Salaries Negotiated by Unions

One obvious question: How do the salaries of these employees compare with the rest of the federal workforce?

Finding the information is not quick or easy. But, with the help of computers and a talented programmer, we have come up with figures in several agencies in which unions negotiate wages on behalf of employees.

While federal salaries are going up, federal employee unions and some officials in the Office of Personnel Management also contend that federal workers are underpaid. The government’s Federal Salary Council releases an annual memo reporting on the size of the supposed pay gap, which in 2009 was 26 percent.(Federal Salary Council reports are available on the Office of Personnel Management’s website. The figure for 2009 is from the 2011 report)

The Salary Council itself is largely made up of union representatives. The President appoints the Council members, which include three experts in labor relations and pay policy and six representatives of employee organizations representing large numbers of General Schedule employees.

As researcher Chris Edwards from the Cato Institute points out, this “pay gap” is supposed to be determined based on job-to-job comparisons, but the results rest on calculations that are non-transparent and subject to statistical modeling. The Heritage Foundation has issued a report looking at salary levels in which it states that it has taken into account a range of factors to make like comparisons and concluded that federal employees are often paid more than similar jobs in the private sector.

In any event, there are disagreements as to the appropriate salary level for federal employees. But, while reasonable people can disagree on what the salary levels should be, here are the figures on the actual pay levels—although there is also some disagreement about these pay figures as well.

Average Federal Employee Salary in 2009

In 2009, federal civilian workers had an average wage of $81,258, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The average salary of the nation’s 101 million private-sector workers was $50,462. OPM has a different figure. It contends that the average federal salary in 2009 was $74,311. Both average federal figures are compiled by federal agencies. Take your pick as to which one you choose to believe to be the most accurate.

Average Salary in Agencies With Union Negotiated Wages

There is little publicity on the legislative history or the average salary in agencies in which unions negotiate wages on behalf of the employees they represent, perhaps because there is a vested interest in keeping the information under the budget-cutting radar when the budget knives are poised to see places to cut.

Here are five agencies and the average salaries in these agencies based on 2009 salary figures:

  • Office of the Comptroller of the Currency $102,994
  • Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation: $97,526
  • National Credit Union Administration: $99,032
  • Securities & Exchange Commission: $140,778
  • Federal Aviation Administration: $99,511
  • St. Lawrence Seaway $63472

One quick conclusion: Federal employees in these agencies generally fare better than the average federal employee and much better than the average American worker.

Other Agencies that Bargain Pay

The Agencies listed above bargain pay as a result of either statutory language interpreted by the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) to enable pay bargaining or by virtue of the authority given the Agency Head to determine compensation. The following agencies also bargain pay. Salary data is not readily available as they are not affected by the Salary Council:

Department of Defense teachers both in the U.S. and abroad. There are still a number of schools in the south on military bases. They were established during the era of segregation and stayed in place since.

The DOD education website lists 8,700 teachers. The Teacher’s union bargains pay for these federal employees.

Department of Defense workers in exchanges, clubs, officer and enlisted quarters, and those who work in morale, welfare and recreation functions on bases such as gyms, golf courses and the like.

According to a Department of Defense report,  there are 130,000 of these workers. Many of these are represented by unions that bargain pay on their behalf.

Other Agencies that bargain compensation with workers include the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (Treasury) with some highly skilled trades, the Department of Navy with its harbor pilots and, of course, the Postal Service, Tennessee Valley Authority and Bonneville Power Administration which are Federal institutions of one kind or another.

There are certainly others, but agency websites do not address collective bargaining issues in any depth and there is no benefit for agencies or unions in publicizing the fact of pay negotiations or the results of these negotiations.


Historically, Congress has not considered government complexity when addressing problems. The drafters of the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989, which bankers know as FIRREA, for example, probably never considered that it would result in substantially higher pay and benefits for file clerks working at FDIC than those doing the exact same job a block away at the Department of Interior. Both jobs are in Washington DC, both use the METRO to get to work and both are federal employees.

When one gets down to details in government, broad generalizations are generally not accurate despite spokespersons and politicians routinely making these proclamations. Achieving transparency about the inner workings of the federal government is a goal that is seldom successful.

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