The federal civil service system was set up to create a politically neutral workforce that works to help the administration in power implement its policies and priorities. The politically neutral concept emerged from a system known as the “spoils system” which led to the winner of the presidential election appointing to government positions the people who were helpful in the new president winning an election.
The merit system does not eliminate political appointments, obviously, but the bulk of the federal workforce is designed to be a professional, politically neutral workforce that works on behalf of a President Obama or a President Trump or whoever the next president happens to be.
With federal employee unions, the line between politics and an apolitical professional workforce becomes blurred. Federal employee unions are free to support any political candidate they wish to support. The support can be financial, usually through political action committees, or providing other types of support to help a candidate win an election. While unions can, and do, openly support specific candidates with press releases and other publicity, it may create the impression the federal workforce is supporting specific candidates.
Politics and Federal Employees
With the sharp political divisions that now grip our country and allegations about a “deep state” working on behalf of favored candidates within the federal bureaucracy, we have entered a different political scenario than existed in an earlier era.
For individual federal employees, the political landscape can be tricky. The Hatch Act has been around since 1939 and it limits the political activity of federal employees. The purpose of this law is to ensure federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan way and to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace. The reality is that federal employees can and do damage their careers by engaging in political activity when political activity is found to violate the Hatch Act.
And, while federal employee unions can and do endorse candidates, it gets confusing. A union official who engages in political activity may find out more about the Hatch Act and how it can damage a federal career even though a union can engage in activity that an individual union official cannot do as a federal employee. (See, for example, AFGE Official Runs Into Hatch Act) Any federal employee wanting to be involved in political activity will want to check out some of the advice provided on this topic before moving out and pursuing a political passion.
Political Donations by Federal Unions
With regulations in place requiring reporting of political donations, it is now possible to see how organizations support a particular political party or individual politicians.
OpenSecrets.org notes in its description of public sector unions:
Since contract negotiations for these workers are dependent not on private corporations, but on the size of government budgets, this is the one segment of the labor movement that can actually contribute directly to the people with ultimate responsibility for its livelihood. While their giving pattern matches that of other unions (which overwhelmingly support Democrats), public sector unions also concentrate contributions on members of Congress from both parties who sit on committees that deal with federal budgets and agencies.
All of the data below on political donations are from the Center for Responsive Politics at OpenSecrets.org.
Unions With Most Donations
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is the largest federal employee union. It is also the federal employee union that donates the most money to political candidates, generally through a political action committee (PAC).
So far in the 2019-2020 election cycle, AFGE has donated $1,231,446 to candidates for elected office, either directly or through other political organizations. From this amount, $1,205,406 went to Democrats and liberal groups. $25,500 went to Republicans.
So far in the 2020 election cycle, which is still in its early stages, AFGE’s political action committee has donated $320,500. Of this amount, 92% went to Democrats and 8% to Republicans. Most of the donations went to candidates running for a House seat ($281,500) while $39,000 went to candidates for a Senate seat. The recipient with the largest donation from the union’s PAC was Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) who has received $8,500. Congressman Max Rose (D-NY) has received the largest donation ($7,000) among the candidates running for a seat in the House.
While most federal employees do not think of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) as a union, OpenSecrets displays the organization as a public-sector union. NARFE is the second-largest source of donations among federal employee unions (excluding the Postal Service unions).
While small by comparison, NARFE donated $286,118 in the 2019-2020 election cycle. $208,618 went to Democrats and $62,500 to Republicans.
The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) is an active federal employee union although their political donations are smaller. In the 2020 election cycle, so far, NTEU has contributed $137,679. In the 2018 election cycle, NTEU donated $592,750 with 88% to Democrats and 11% to Republicans.
Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Mark Warner (D-VA) have been the candidates with the largest donations from NTEU in the 2020 election cycle with $5,000 to each candidate. Larger donations of $15,000 have gone to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The 2020 election year will be filled with political news and a number of hotly contested elections as the two major political parties vie for control of government at the presidential and Congressional levels. Federal employee unions will be active in supporting candidates and will again throw most of their support to Democrats. Federal employees are free from political pressure by virtue of the Hatch Act but need to be aware of restrictions also imposed on them by the same law. Violating the Hatch Act can lead to serious consequences and damage a federal career.