Unions Flex Their Muscle

Anger over last winter's government shutdowns, coupled with changes in federal law allowing civil service employees to participate more fully in the election process, led to a surge of federal worker participation in the campaign season, union officials said last night.

Most of that activity came in support of Democratic candidates, who fell short in their effort to reestablish majorities in the House and Senate.

Nevertheless, leaders of federal employee unions said that the involvement of civil servants in the campaign helped set the tone of debate on issues ranging from working families to the environment.

National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) President Robert Tobias said anger was the motivating force for federal workers. "This Congress was very threatening to federal employees," Tobias said. "This is the American way of expressing anger."

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) created the campaign battle cry "Remember in November" to keep the government shutdown last winter that put federal employees out of work fresh in the minds of civil servants.

AFGE communications director Magda Seymour said she believed President Clinton stood firm against Republicans who wanted to kill agencies and eliminate federal jobs.

"The government shutdown was a defining issue," Seymour said.

Un-Hatched

Civil servant involvement in the election process would not have been possible without the Hatch Act reforms passed in 1993. For the first time since 1939, federal employees were permitted to take an active part in political campaigns, serve as delegates to party conventions, and solicit donations to campaigns.

Tobias said that the changes in law laid the foundation for the unprecedented federal employee involvement. "The Hatch Act reforms made it possible," Tobias said.

AFGE's Seymour agreed. "We had the opportunity to 'unhatch' and flex our political wings," she said.

As early as January NTEU developed its election campaign strategy, "Target '96." The union targeted key congressional races in districts where NTEU had a large membership base and felt it could help influence the turnout. Their strategy included voter registration drives, education campaigns, and PAC contributions.

AFGE's "Labor '96" strategy included deploying organizers to local AFL-CIO chapters in competitive congressional districts. AFGE also launched a fundraising drive to contribute to the AFL-CIO's $35-million effort to oust the Republican majority from Congress.

Contributions to NTEU and AFGE for their political action committees soared. Each organization estimates it made $300,000 in PAC contributions to campaigns across the country. Often the contributions translated into radio and television advertisements. GOP officials said the ads distorted facts and cast a negative light on GOP candidates.

Working with the GOP

Tobias said that despite last night's results, his union would attempt to work with Republicans.

"We'll try to do what we did from '94 to '96, which was to try to create a bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans who will work to mitigate some of the effects of the proposals that would harm federal workers," Tobias said.

The unions were considerably more upbeat about the outcome of the presidential race. Tobias said he thought the labor-management partnership model of Clinton's first term should be carried into his second term.

"I think that agencies and agency heads are understanding more and more that changes can't occur without having partnership with employees," he said. Tobias also said Clinton's return to office will mean mixed results for unions, though certainly not a hostile relationship.

"I think we're still going to have disagreements about pay and the amount of pay," Tobias said. "But we will continue to work together on mitigating the effects of downsizing."

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