Union outlines legislative agenda

The American Federation of Government Employees will push for an ambitious legislative agenda, and is confident that President Obama will support significant changes to the National Security Personnel System and federal contracting system.

"We are so ready for this president," said AFGE President John Gage in a Wednesday briefing with reporters. "Since I've been president, this has been a defensive, adversarial battle with our employer. … For our union now to change from the defense to the offense is what we're all getting in step about."

Top priorities, Gage said, are to "drive the final stake" into NSPS, the pay-for-performance system that the union has opposed since its inception, and to win full collective bargaining rights for employees of the Transportation Security Administration, where AFGE and the National Treasury Employees Union both have been organizing local union chapters.

Gage said that in conversations with the president, Obama has committed to seriously examining NSPS, though has stopped short of pledging to end the program. Gage believes that Obama would sign legislation repealing NSPS if Congress passed such a bill, indicating that such passage is likely, especially if an NSPS ban is attached to a larger piece of legislation.

In addition, Gage said that while Obama's recent executive orders regulating the actions of federal contractors were a strong symbol and a step in the right direction, they were also only a start. Gage said he expected significant contracting legislation to be introduced within the next several weeks, though he did not specify which issues it would address.

J. David Cox, AFGE's national secretary-treasurer, said the union planned to push for changes to the Veterans Affairs Department's funding formula that would allow the department to be funded for two years at a time instead of one, increasing stability in the budget and enabling VA to hire more personnel. He said along with those funding changes, AFGE would support a bill sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., that would expand collective bargaining rights for certain VA employees, including registered nurses, physicians' assistants and dentists.

Gage said AFGE would push for significant funding for agencies governmentwide to increase their staff in this year's fiscal 2009 omnibus package, especially in the Justice Department's Bureau of Prisons where, he said, "not enough correctional officers… results in dead correctional officers."

Beyond the problems of specific agencies, Cox said AFGE will call on Obama and Congress to commit to closing the gap between federal pay and private sector salaries by 2018.

Even though the struggling economy has prompted some workers to postpone retirement, "people will be leaving the government," Cox noted. "There is going to be a turnover of employees. And we need to have salaries that will attract people to come in and stay in the federal government for their lifetime career."

Beth Moten, AFGE's legislative and political director, said the union would support legislation that would enroll new federal employees in the Thrift Savings Plan automatically as well as changes to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program that would allow dependents to stay enrolled in the program until age 25. She also said AFGE would push the Office of Personnel Management to negotiate more aggressively with FEHBP providers to keep costs down.

Gage said unions should play a role in those negotiations over health plan costs, which could be one area where restoration of the labor-management partnerships created by President Clinton and abolished by President Bush could be helpful, he added. But Gage said he did not want to return to the way the partnerships were structured under Clinton, and would instead prefer a simplified system that stripped out rules on how to reach consensus and requirements for facilitation.

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