Addressing a federal employee union revved up for an election year, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer on Tuesday said the Republican-led Congress “is not doing its part” to meet the challenges of recruiting and training a federal workforce that forms “the finest civil service in the world.”
The Maryland Democrat brought 350 members of the National Treasury Employees Union to their feet as he told their annual Washington legislative conference that “nothing makes me angry like hearing a member on the floor of the House use bureaucrat as an epithet.”
With the country “angry” and “divided,” Hoyer said both he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California see the 2016 campaign “as the most important election we’ve been involved in” since the 1960s. Hoyer credited the federal workforce with helping “bring the economy back with extraordinary resilience” and, in the past several years, involuntarily contributing $159 billion toward deficit reduction (NTEU updates the figure to $182 billion). “You’ve endured pay freezes, pension changes and furloughs against near-constant background noise of vitriol,” said Hoyer, a longtime NTEU booster. “Even some of my Democratic colleagues don’t show the appreciation they ought to.”
The 1.6 percent pay raise President Obama recently proposed “doesn’t get close” to closing the pay gap with the private sector of about 36 percent, Hoyer said. “We have to have a pay scale that encourages young people to come in, and then [offer] the benefits so they stay. And I see no reason why a civilian employee sitting next to a corporal or a sergeant working in the exact same job shouldn’t’ get the exact same pay.” Displaying an NTEU sign, Hoyer said, “I tell all federal employees to join up, pay up, speak up, and Congress will be responsive.”
The conference, the first under NTEU National President Tony Reardon, sparks several days of state-based member lobbying on Capitol Hill. NTEU’s five new legislative priorities finalized on Monday include: protecting federal retirement; raising federal pay higher than the proposed 1.6 percent; safeguarding health care benefits (premiums rose 6.4 percent for 2016); assuring workplace fairness (resisting bills that undermine collective bargaining); and “appropriate agency funding” (the two-year relaxation of sequestration in last fall’s budget deal, the union believes, is not adequate in the long term.).
The chief vehicle for higher pay backed by NTEU is a coming bill by Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., that would give federal employees a 5.3 percent pay raise. Though employees deserve even more given the zero raise of recent years, Reardon told reporters between conference sessions, “5.3 percent was what realistically made the most sense.” He admitted that such a plan’s prospects in an election year are “not a lot,” but said the union “will bust our tails to make it happen.” Even the proposed 1.6 percent raise “could be blocked by Congress if we are not vocal and vigilant,” he told the audience.
What makes this year’s gathering different is the NTEU’s emphasis on urging members to volunteer to help make phone calls and knock on doors around the country to get out the vote. Though nonpartisan in its approach to Congress, NTEU has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. “This election will determine whether we have a supporter or opponent in the White House,” Reardon said. “Everything about your working life is decided by those elected to office,” he added, citing pay, agency heads, contracting decisions and bargaining rights. “Some candidates would put federal employees on an endangered species list by closing agencies and privatizing our jobs.”
In praising Hoyer’s past advocacy for “fair pay, secure retirement, lower health costs and collective bargaining rights,” Reardon said, “Federal employees are not chits to be traded but real human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.” The attacks on federal workers “have not let up, and I expect they will get more intense as the election gets closer,” he added.
Reardon singled out several among NTEU’s 31 organized agencies, among them the National Park Service, the Energy Department and, because it’s an election year, the Federal Election Commission. “To win, we need to aim high, fight hard and act boldly,” he told the audience he characterized as “tired and disheartened.” He implored members to “fight for the tools and resources and staffing we need to do what the American people need us to do.” Reardon added, “Make no mistake, we are part of a movement at the heart of the American dream.”
Though nonpartisan, NTEU is critical of Republican proposals in Congress to curb collection of union dues and organizing on official time. He mocked the Federal Employee Rights Act introduced by House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., for proposing to make unionization harder by changing voting rules so that a majority of all employees in the proposed unit, not just those voting, must have voted in favor of the union. It’s ironic, Reardon said, that many congressional district races “are decided with anemic levels of participation.”
Given such major issues before the nation as the rise of ISIS, job growth and the environment, he added, some lawmakers make it their project to attack federal workers. “We need all NTEU members to push back and expand our presence on Capitol Hill to grow this movement.”
Hoyer advocated specifically for passage of family and medical leave for federal employees to compete with the private sector. He said the Office of Personnel Management “should be held accountable” for last June’s data breach of personnel files of millions of federal employees past and current. “We need an all-hands-on-desk approach to cybersecurity,” he said.
On union organizing and civil service reform, he said, “We can’t allow Congress to make our nonpartisan workforce into one where anyone can be fired. The workforce must remain free from political interference, but individually not free from political involvement.”
Hoyer also scolded Republicans for the 2013 government shutdown, saying that “any corporation’s human resources department would say, ‘This is nuts, you will lose people and lower morale.’ ” What must the rest of the world think, particularly allies who depend on the United States for safety and security, he said, when Republicans, because they didn’t repeal the Affordable Care Act, shut down the government.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a chasm as great as it is today,” Hoyer added. “Young people see us fighting and scratching and screaming, then there are benefits cuts, what do you think they” think about working in a place where employees aren’t treated well? “Too often,” he added, “critics of the federal government transfer that animosity to the people who serve—we must not let those attacks go unanswered.”