Tweaking a phrase Clinton campaign consultant James Carville made famous, John Gage says that in 2004, "It's the White House, stupid." Since winning election as president of the American Federation of Government Employees nearly a year ago, Gage has waged war with the Bush administration over changes to civil services rules at the Homeland Security and Defense departments and Bush's plan to put hundreds of thousands of jobs up for competition from private firms.
"This administration has punched us in the mouth," he says. But Gage hopes to land the knockout blow this November. Ten years after Congress passed legislation allowing federal employees to play more active roles in the political process, Gage says AFGE is gearing up for its most extensive political campaign ever.
Last month in Pittsburgh, the union formally awarded its endorsement to Democratic challenger John Kerry, but Gage's planning for the campaign has been in the works far longer. Although federal unions are small compared to most of their private-sector counterparts, AFGE has teamed up with the AFL-CIO-an umbrella organization of 61 member unions-to help bolster labor's campaign nationwide. Gage has agreed to head up AFL-CIO get-out-the-vote efforts in New Mexico, a battleground state that Al Gore won in 2000 by less than 400 votes. And he has urged local AFGE members to volunteer their time in Kerry's campaign. AFGE also has raised more money than it did during the last presidential campaign, and Gage hopes to dole out $750,000 to candidates this year, topping 2000's fund-raising total by nearly 50 percent.
Other federal employee unions also are taking unprecedented steps to defeat Bush. All of the major unions are expected to back Kerry. Already, the National Treasury Employees Union, National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers have made formal endorsements. This is the first time the engineers' union has endorsed a presidential candidate. "It's so clear this year that our union and labor overall would be much better off with President Bush out of office," says Matt Biggs, the union's legislative director.
Energized and Mobilized
The 2004 election is only the third presidential campaign in which civil servants have had the right to participate in politics as most other citizens can: volunteering their time, giving money, speaking out on behalf of their candidates and urging others to get out the vote.
Before 1994, federal employees were barred from almost all forms of electioneering by the 1939 Hatch Act. Unions successfully lobbied President Clinton to sign legislation loosening the law's restrictions. There are still limits, however. Federal employees cannot run for partisan office. They cannot work on campaigns while on the job or use federal resources to support candidates. Unions may raise funds to support candidates through political action committees, but individual members may not hold fund-raisers and cannot solicit government employees or contractors for votes or political donations.
Even with the Hatch Act restrictions, though, Colleen Kelley, president of the treasury employees' union, says, "Our front-line members are mobilizing in ways they haven't ever before." In some cases, she notes, they are energized by competitive House and Senate races. But like Gage, she says that "right now, we are more focused on the White House." NTEU endorsed Kerry in February, one of the first federal employee unions to do so.
According to Kelley, Kerry won the union's support through his voting record on federal employee concerns and his answers to an NTEU questionnaire in which Kerry said he was "very troubled" by the Bush administration's effort to put hundreds of thousands of federal jobs up for competition. In response to a question about the personnel reforms at the Homeland Security Department and the Pentagon, Kerry said he would "support reinstating statutory safeguards" for workers at both departments and would protect their right to belong to unions. Congressionally approved reforms allow Homeland Security and Defense to replace the General Schedule with a pay-for-performance system and limit union bargaining rights in the name of national security.
Gage says AFGE plans to reach out beyond its membership and highlight issues of interest to all Americans, such as potential changes to Social Security, Veterans Affairs programs and Medicare. AFGE has run ads in two states with large veteran populations, South Carolina and Iowa, accusing Bush of cutting funding for veterans hospitals and trying to privatize government jobs.
Overall, though, the unions will limit their spending on advertising and stick to time-tested organizing techniques. During the past few months, the unions have gathered the names of members willing to volunteer their time. They plan to put them to work on get-out-the-vote campaigns, phone banks, direct-mail campaigns and political rallies.
There have been some hiccups en route. At AFGE, Gage disbanded the union's old political department earlier this year and put legislative director Beth Moten and executive assistant Brian DeWyngaert in charge of organizing for the campaign. Gage also hired Ann Riley, a former staffer at the League of Conservation Voters, as a political representative. Former AFGE political director Martin Dunleavy, who backed Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., during the Democratic primaries, has left the union. In the turmoil, the union failed to organize members to run for seats as delegates to the Democratic National Convention, so it is unlikely that AFGE will be as well represented as it was in 2000, when more than 30 members were Democratic delegates.
AFGE has set up a strike team of top union staffers who plan to visit local union outposts to mobilize members. In the past, the union has been able to register voters at federal work sites before it makes a formal endorsement on the grounds that such efforts aren't partisan. But this year, the Office of Special Counsel ordered AFGE to stop such efforts even before it endorsed Kerry. OSC chief Scott Bloch ruled that statements by AFGE leaders attacking Bush indicated that the union's efforts were not nonpartisan.
Meanwhile, NTEU has for the first time asked all of its members to volunteer 10 hours in a campaign. "This will be something very new to many of them," says Kelley, adding she has been pleased with the energetic response of members.
"The bottom line is the same," says George Gould, who has 25 years under his belt as political director at the National Association of Letter Carriers. After some years in which political consultants put heavy stress on television and radio advertising, "we've gotten back to the fundamentals" of phone banks, direct mail and knocking on doors, says Gould. During each election cycle, the letter carriers union hires five regional coordinators to work on boosting union members' participation. In the final months of the campaign season, the coordinators will actually join candidates' campaign staffs in races the union considers particularly crucial. That model has been so successful that the national AFL-CIO has also used it since 1996.
Of course, candidates can always use money, and all of the unions are hoping to set fund-raising records. Biggs says the engineers' union has never done much with its PAC, but still expects to raise $500,000 this year. Other unions, such as NTEU and the air traffic controllers association, say fund-raising has been brisk. Air traffic controllers, who've always had one of the largest union PACs, have doled out about $1.2 million, eclipsing their record set during the 2002 campaign. Treasury employees have handed out about $250,000. Letter carriers have donated $540,000.
Federal unions stack up well against their bigger counterparts in the labor movement in terms of political contributions per member. NTEU members, for example, have given nearly $3.50 per member thus far in 2004, and they gave nearly $5 per member in 2000. By comparison, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which handed over more money to political candidates than any other union in 2000, are giving about $2.55 per member this year. The IBEW members gave about $4.60 per member in 2000. The National Association of Air Traffic Controllers, meanwhile, has among the most generous members of any union. Its members donated $51 per member in 2000, and have boosted their per capita giving to nearly $70 this year.
In recent years, AFGE has taken a more strategic approach to campaign contributions, reducing the number of races in which it makes donations from more than 200 to about 150. In the process, the union has increased its average contribution in competitive races to more than $1,000. In the past, the average contribution was only about $200.
After taking heat from some Republicans in its ranks, AFGE has boosted the percentage of dollars going to GOP candidates from about 6 percent in 2000 and 2002 to nearly 20 percent this year. Other unions have taken a hands-on approach. Earlier this year, for example, the letter carriers organized a get-out-the-vote effort for moderate Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter when he received a primary challenge from conservative Rep. Patrick Toomey. Gould toured a postal facility with Specter, and local leaders put out calls and letters to registered Republican letter carriers.
At the Grassroots
At the state level, the unions are looking for members like Mary Roussel, an Internal Revenue Service employee in Lewiston, Maine. Roussel is a member of the state Democratic Party and an active volunteer for Maine's two Democratic representatives, Michael Michaud and Tom Allen. She was a delegate at the Maine Democratic Party convention in May and voted to endorse Kerry for president. She also heads up the political arm of her local branch of NTEU.
Roussel's political awakening came in 1995 when the IRS announced that it was planning to cut 5,000 jobs. "I went to the union president and said I wasn't going to give up without a fight," she says. Roussel organized a meeting with then-Rep. John Baldacci, D-Maine, and convinced him to write a letter protesting the layoffs. After a year and a half of lobbying by Roussel and other union members across the country, the IRS abandoned the downsizing effort.
Ever since, Roussel has organized her colleagues on behalf of NTEU. In some cases, she's had to put aside her personal views for the good of the union, such as in the case of Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who chairs the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and is considered a friend of federal employees. "I do everything that I can to let the employees know that she does support us," says Roussel.
On the job, Roussel adheres to the letter of the Hatch Act, but she does what she can, such as posting the voting records of Maine's delegation at her office. In her spare time, she marches in parades, such as the Maine Potato Blossom Festival in Fort Fairfield and the Moxie Day Parade in Lisbon, Maine, showing her support for her favored candidates. Come election time, she attends fund-raisers. She delivers campaign literature and makes phone calls to would-be voters.
Roussel is not alone. In Greensboro, N.C., IRS worker Glenda Powell sets up NTEU nights for members to get together and call prospective voters. She asks members to attend rallies and carry NTEU signs. On Election Day, she drives voters to the polls. To steer clear of Hatch Act violations, she keeps records of her members' home numbers and e-mail addresses to contact them about political matters. In 1998, NTEU members were active on phone banks for John Edwards' successful Senate campaign, and this year plan to play roles in the congressional campaigns of Democratic Reps. Bob Etheridge, David Price, Mel Watt and Brad Miller.
Mike McNally, chairman of the Eastern Region Legislative Committee of the air traffic controllers association, says that federal employees are "still new to the political game" but adds that "this year, I've never seen everyone so engaged."
If McNally is correct, Kerry will reap the benefits of that grassroots enthusiasm. "That's the whole deal: to get individual members active and involved with campaigns," says Robert Tobias, a professor at American University in Washington and former NTEU president. With the lessons of the 2000 presidential race still fresh in their minds, Tobias adds, federal employee unions recognize that "when every vote counts, every vote counts."