Salary Squabble

Federal employees have become the envy of the private sector.

It's not every day that labor unions get a new opportunity to organize tens of thousands of employees at a federal agency. But as Alyssa Rosenberg reports this month, that's what's happening at the Transportation Security Administration. The American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union are locked in a battle to win the support of TSA officers.

Of course, the union that prevails won't have the full range of powers that private sector unions do. It won't, for example, be able to bargain on behalf of its members over pay. But that doesn't mean the union will have no influence over employee compensation. AFGE and NTEU already are pushing for Transportation Security employees to be shifted out of their pay-for-performance system and into the standard General Schedule federal pay structure.

Unions, and many federal workers, like the GS system for the stability it provides and the near-guarantee of annual pay increases. That, in turn, has made them the envy of employees in private companies still reeling from the effects of a recession-and facing a future in which raises and even the prospect of long-term employment seem increasingly elusive.

As Alex M. Parker reports in this issue, the long-simmering debate over federal vs. private sector pay erupted earlier this year. Not only did a newly minted U.S. senator, Scott Brown, R-Mass., call for a federal salary freeze, but several media outlets got into the act-painting federal workers as at least generously compensated, if not overpaid. On Forbes.com, columnists Brian S. Wesbury and Robert Stein argued that not only should civilian federal workers forgo a pay increase this year, they should take a 10 percent across-the-board reduction in salary.

Office of Management and Budget Director Peter R. Orszag felt compelled to enter the debate, saying a USA Today job-by-job analysis that concluded federal employees in certain job categories made more than their private counterparts was "misleading." Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry publicly ripped a Washington Times editorial that asked readers to "consider how much money a bureaucrat can make for successfully sitting at his desk for a year."

"When I heard that and I read that-it just steams me," Berry said on Federal News Radio in Washington. "Do they think that the researchers at [the National Institutes of Health] who are developing cures for cancer today are bureaucrats sitting at their desks? Do they think the TSA employees who are screening people who are sitting next to you on the airplane today-are they just sitting at their desks?"

In this day and age, federal employment at a desk, in a laboratory, or at a security checkpoint looks like a pretty attractive proposition.

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