Union Wants to Change the Conversation On Federal Employees

The National Treasury Employees Union references CBP agents in the campaign. The National Treasury Employees Union references CBP agents in the campaign. CBP via NTEU

Television  and radio audiences across the country will soon encounter an array of 30- and 60-second public service spots designed to “change the conversation about federal workers,” the goal of a $40,000 one-year campaign launched on Wednesday by the National Treasury Employees Union.

Last October’s 16-day government shutdown “gave Americans a glimpse of what life would look like without federal workers, and what they saw was not a pretty picture,” NTEU National President Colleen Kelley told a gathering of reporters as the ad campaign was released. “But that ended, and now it’s time to put front and center” what federal workers do “to connect the dots” that the public isn’t always aware of, she said.

The ads feature agency employees who are NTEU members invoking the theme “They work for U.S.” (as in, the United States and “us”). Rotating among agency missions, the spokespeople for the ads proclaim, “Without us,….tax cheats would never pay their fair share…Terrorists and contraband would enter the U.S….American lakes and rivers would be polluted.” Another batch of ads builds on the theme “We Protect.”

The campaign comes now because “there’s a lot of danger signs we’re headed in the wrong direction,” Kelley said, citing the three-year pay freeze, now lifted, and other efforts to cut federal pay and benefits.

A recent Government Accountability Office report showed 10 agencies are operating with reduced staffs -- the Internal Revenue Service, in particular, Kelley said, has lost 10,000 employees in the past several years and cut its training budget 87 percent. GAO also found that federal pay hikes are below the inflation rate, which “represents a decline in the standard of living for employees striving to maintain a middle-class lifestyle,” she added. There’s also a spike in federal retirements, although the Office of Personnel Management received 2,617 fewer new retirement claims than it expected to last month, and roughly 5,000 fewer new applications in January 2014 than in January 2013. “Many agencies are in decline, and the downward spiral has to stop,” Kelley said.

The ads will be distributed on thumb drives to NTEU chapters to send to 300 TV and 1,000 radio stations. The campaign is supplemented by a new website offering such information as the number of federal employees in each state. That is designed to “counter the misperception that they’re all in Washington,” Kelley said, noting that 85 percent of feds live and work beyond the Beltway.

“They work for U.S.” is the third such NTEU campaign in the past five years. An evaluation after a year of the union’s similar effort in 2011 found that the spots were viewed 25,000 times and left 292 million audience impressions. Noting that social media allow such campaigns to get bigger each year, the union plans to exploit Facebook and Twitter by encouraging members to relay the messages to families and friends.

The spots will be shared with all 31 NTEU-affiliated agencies as well as OPM and the Office of Management and Budget, Kelley said. The plan is part of a long-term and “positive” NTEU “building blocks” effort, and was not coordinated with any other unions, though NTEU has cooperated with the American Federation of Government Employees in the past, Kelley said.

Nor is the campaign linked to action on any piece of legislation. “The public takes much of federal employees’ work for granted, so we’re trying to break the quiet so the conversation changes to support, rather than the public jumping on the bandwagon of the nonstop attacks of recent years,” Kelley said.

The ads will be followed later in the year by a new Web-based campaign focused on federal careers.  

Asked about her outlook for federal employee issues in 2014, Kelley was mildly pessimistic, saying NTEU is “prepared for the worst but hoping for best, given that Congress is in session for fewer days due to the elections.” The recent trend toward early buyouts “is generally bad news because of the funding problems,” she said, though cash-strapped agencies “are doing them surgically, not across the board.” Many agencies are not backfilling jobs, she added, filling one position for every five employees who leave.

Proposals by Republican lawmakers for major cuts in the IRS budget -- which last summer came at the height of the controversy over alleged targeting of primarily conservative nonprofits applying for tax-exempt status -- ignore the fact that IRS brings in four dollars for every dollar in its budget, Kelley said. “The allegations of targeting are convenient and easy, but no one has been found to have done wrong, yet the allegations continue,” she added.

Kelley praised newly installed IRS Commissioner John Koskinen as an advocate who is “open and supportive of front-line employees,” who, she said, are the best source of ideas for improved efficiency. 

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