An Election in Wisconsin and the ‘Perfect Storm’ for Federal Employees Still Gaining Strength

Americans are increasingly polarized. Elections are becoming more hotly disputed with tempers fraying and lawyers and lawsuits becoming the “new normal.” At the heart of the matter, the role of government in America and the role of unions in government.

Back in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote a letter to the National Federation of Federal Employees congratulating the union on its 20th anniversary.

He also threw in a few gratuitous comments about the role of unions in government. Here is what he wrote:

The desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development of opportunities for advancement, facilities for fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives of a proper employee relations policy, is basically no different from that of employees in private industry. Organization on their part to present their views on such matters is both natural and logical, but meticulous attention should be paid to the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government.

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations.

Unions, Governments and Politics

President Roosevelt’s view of unions is now in the past but the issue is very relevant today.

Unions now represent employees in local governments, states and at the federal level. For those who pay attention to such things, there were elections held this week in Wisconsin and in California with the main issue being the role of unions in government.

A few years ago, new contracts were negotiated with government unions and the results were out of sight and out of mind of most voters. But this week, the outcome of the public revolt at the ballot box was the same in both cases and the results were not favorable for continuing the high pay and benefits brought about by collective bargaining.

Not so today. With government at all levels in financial distress, voters are paying attention to where all of their tax money is going. The result of the closer examination: Anger, frustration, lawsuits and political turmoil while governments flirt with bankruptcy and financial disaster.

Wisconsin and California are indicators of problems at all levels of government as pensions and salaries negotiated by unions on behalf of government employees have become larger and a bigger target as governments try to cut back on spending. Chances are, the “perfect storm” for federal employee pay and benefits that we delineated early last year is still gaining strength.

Consider this statement regarding the pensions and salaries of policemen and firefighters in one California city: “Today, public sentiment toward the men and women in uniform has widely shifted, as many locals are up in arms over escalating pension costs for public-safety workers.”

One of the firefighters told a reporter: “This is not a city where you want to be a firefighter,” says (this firefighter), who says he has seen residents flip the middle finger at his firetruck, which never happened before in his 17-year career.”

With this public mood, it is not surprising that voters in two California cities voted for public employee pension cuts this week and predictions (probably exaggerated by the author’s immediate reaction to the election results) of “doom” for public sector unions.

Unions at all levels have often gained considerable clout and the ability to negotiate more lucrative salaries and pensions for their members. In many cases, the additional clout has come about as unions have become aligned with the Democratic party where, in a mutually beneficial relationship, unions help Democrats get elected and, when elected, elected officials help the unions become more powerful.

The results can be seen in the increasingly belligerent disputes that are showing up in elections. For a variety of reasons, there is little doubt that Americans are increasingly polarized. At the heart of the political differences is a dispute over the role of government in our daily lives and the role of unions in government.

Unions in the Federal Government

Most Americans do not know anything about or care very much about the role of unions in the federal government.

Most federal employees are represented by unions and, in most cases, those unions cannot negotiate wages.

But that is not true in all cases. In agencies where employees are represented by unions that can negotiate wages, the employees make much more money that those that are not represented by unions with this political power. In 2009, the average federal salary was about $81,000. But, for agencies where unions can negotiate wages, there was more money flowing from the federal Treasury to employees. Here are several examples:

  • 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

This same disparity can be seen in the wages of some jobs that exist in all agencies. For example, how many EEO jobs pay more than $200,000? How many federal human resources specialists make more than $175,000?

There are not many federal employees who make more than Congressman but those that do work in agencies in which unions negotiate wages, or are outside the General Pay Schedule, often do much better with their current pay and future retirement benefits than other federal employees performing the same jobs.

Implications for Federal Employees

The elections in Wisconsin and California indicate more turmoil and concern about benefits in the near future for federal employees.

Numerous legislative proposals have been made to cut the benefits for federal employees. A wage freeze that has extended for two years was actually implemented and could be extended. The legislative proposals to cut benefits or to restrict retirement benefits for federal retirees have not passed both Houses of Congress but the underlying issues are still active and not going away anytime soon. And, with federal employees making headlines across the country with accounts of waste and abuse of federal funds at conferences or Secret Service employees becoming embroiled in their own version of a scandal, all federal employees and agencies are more likely to be targeted with future cuts.

The role of unions in government and the role of government in our society are not going to be resolved in any one local or national election. But the massive deficits at all levels of government are not going away quickly. And, with some politicians with political careers dependent upon the goodwill of unions, and the political careers of others threatened by unions, the political dispute and social unrest is likely to get even nastier than we are used to seeing in America.

Federal employees are unlikely to see increases in benefits of anything more than very minor salary increases in the current social and political climate. If the Democrats should retain control of the White House and Congress, the federal employee unions are likely to gain more power—perhaps they will even get a chance to require all employees in a bargaining unit to be required to pay dues.  But, with voters increasingly worried about federal deficits, and the current federal deficit now exceeding $1.5 trillion each year, it is unlikely any administration will favor increasing the deficit to pay more to the nation’s “civil servants.”

Moreover, it is the House of Representatives that has been pushing legislation to restrict benefits. If Congress and the White House should be controlled by others who see an opportunity to cut the federal deficit, restrict the power of unions, and reduce the role of government in our daily lives, we are likely to see implemented many of the proposals of President Obama’s bi-partisan deficit reduction commission, despite these recommendations having been ignored since they were released last year.

Political trends ebb and flow. At the moment, the trend is to cut spending in many states and localities. That trend has not yet had a significant impact on the federal government but it is likely to work its way up to the national government in the near future regardless of which political party is in power.  The political disputes in Wisconsin and California won’t stop at the borders of those states.

Many of the same circumstances are at play in our national politics as well.

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