Union launches anti-privatization campaign
The largest federal employee union is putting a new face on its fight against contracting out.
Last week, the American Federation of Government Employees unveiled its Stop Wasting America's Money on Privatization (SWAMP), campaign. The union plans to educate its members on outsourcing's growing threat to their jobs. Union members will be encouraged to contact their congressional representatives to put pressure on Capitol Hill and the Clinton administration to study the costs of contracting out.
AFGE is gambling that a study of outsourcing would reveal that shifting work into the private sector actually costs more than keeping jobs in-house and making internal operations more efficient. AFGE President Bobby Harnage wants the administration to figure out how many government contracts exist, what their costs are and whether outsourcing has saved the government money over keeping work in-house.
Though the administration claims the government is smaller now than it was six years ago, "there's a possibility the government has gotten larger," Harnage said. "There's a numbers game being played on Capitol Hill and in the business community. They're trying to turn this into a government for profit."
Harnage said the Clinton administration struck a deal with the union when the 1998 Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act was enacted. That law calls for an inventory of the federal workforce, categorizing all jobs as either inherently governmental or not. The administration told AFGE that the government would also create an inventory of the contractor workforce.
"That was over a year ago, and we don't have the inventory yet," Harnage said.
The most recent effort to count the contractor workforce was made by Brookings Institution scholar and Government Executive contributing editor Paul Light, who estimated that 5.6 million private sector contractors produce services or goods for the federal government in The True Size of Government (Brookings, 1999).
But AFGE wants the administration to gather data that could be used to show that moving contractor jobs back into the public sector may actually save money. Harnage, however, conceded that the data could end up proving the opposite.
"If that's true, then we've been wrong and they've been right," he said.
But Adrian Moore, director of the Reason Public Policy Institute's Privatization Center, said the main reason agencies privatize is to save money.
"Privatization and outsourcing will save money if it's done right," Moore said. "I understand the union's problem with privatization, but there's a lot more constructive criticisms they could make than that."
Contracting out has become a primary management strategy in the federal government. The Defense Department plans to hold public-private competitions for 230,000 civilian jobs over the next five years. NASA is contracting out many of its operations, as is the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Outsourcing may pick up more steam this fall, when the Office of Management and Budget releases the inventory of the federal workforce. Contractors can use the inventory as a list of potential outsourcing opportunities.