Unions say recession is sparking federal sector organizing
Paul Shearon, secretary-treasurer of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said oversight of the stimulus package and other government efforts to stabilize the economy have placed greater demands on the highly educated specialists IFPTE traditionally represents. "It puts the pressure on management, too, and sometimes it puts management in the position of having to make unreasonable choices," he said.
Workers at three agencies Shearon declined to identify have approached IFPTE about the possibility of forming locals. "Across the board … they saw the union as an opportunity for them not only to protect their interests, but [also] to improve their agency," he said. The union is considering increasing the size of its Washington staff so it can reach out to agencies where workers have expressed interest.
Shearon and IFPTE Legislative Director Matt Biggs said the union has not made a deliberate effort to expand. Rather, its successful 2007 campaign to organize researchers and analysts at the Government Accountability Office raised its visibility and sent the message that white-collar workers could benefit from unions as much as blue-collar employees, Shearon said. Social networking likely helped to spread the word, he said.
IFPTE in late February won an election to represent employees at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the agency that oversees private sector retirement plans. Many of these plans have been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn, increasing PBGC's workload.
"There is more and more oversight, our employees in GAO are getting an ever-increasing number of reports and studies to perform," Shearon said. Pressures on PBGC workers are likely to get more intense as well, he said.
Cassie Kerner, organizing director for the National Federation of Federal Employees, said NFFE also is noticing heightened interest.
"A lot of federal employees have a spouse who has lost their job, or children who are out of school but can't find work," she said. "A lot of federal employees are joining the union because they really value job security in this economic downturn, and the union can help provide that security through representation."
Kerner declined to provide specific numbers, but said a recent survey to determine interest in organizing received three times as many positive responses as the union had expected. As a result, NFFE has established a committee to communicate with potential members, and has rewritten its strategic plan to anticipate the need to reach larger numbers of workers.
The spike in inquiries is a trial run for the coming generational turnover in the workforce, Kerner said. Not only will agencies lose experienced workers as baby boomers retire, but unions will shed longtime members. NFFE is planning an aggressive outreach campaign for new federal employees, according to Kerner.
Biggs said it made sense for IFPTE -- which represents both public and private sector employees -- to concentrate its organizing efforts on government since it is one of the few employers hiring more people. He also noted that, unlike private sector companies, federal agencies generally shy away from bringing in outside consulting firms or lawyers to block the formation of a union, making organizing campaigns easier and less expensive.
Both NFFE and IFPTE are glad for the opportunity to grow at a time when the economy at large is shrinking. "We are going to make sure that we make the most of this period of increased interest in organizing," Kerner said.