Labor of Love

AFGE’s new president, J. David Cox, talks tough, but he likes to listen too.

Official Washington has a way of squeezing the life out of more colorful characters. Spend enough time here and everyone working in the fishbowl starts to talk, dress and sound alike. It’s the kind of risk-aversion that afflicts the professionally and politically ambitious.

Mercifully, politics and government aren’t populated completely by drones yet. J. David Cox, the new president of the country’s largest federal employee union, has lived in the nation’s capital for six years, so he knows how to deliver an effective sound bite. Despite the polish, however, he still manages to retain an air of authenticity. Maybe it’s the Southern accent. Cox, who goes by J. David and hails from North Carolina, has a Southerner’s knack for talking tough while also nurturing necessary relationships—without sounding off-key.

Case in point: Cox gave a rousing speech to members of the American Federation of Government Employees during the organization’s legislative conference this spring in which he blasted the Obama administration for its proposed 0.5 percent federal pay raise for 2013. “And now the administration is talking about one-half of 1 percent,” said Cox, then-AFGE’s national secretary-treasurer. “Now let me say that one more time. This is our friend. One-half of 1 percent. I believe we all deserve better than that. Do you not believe you deserve more than a half percent? It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, brothers and sisters, if you are trying to drive the living standards of our members down, we’ve got to take you to task and hold you accountable, no matter who and what you are.” 

In his first week as AFGE president, Cox called the White House’s decision to extend the pay freeze until Congress passes a budget “absolutely unwarranted and unjustified.”

Contrast that with his passionate commitment to helping Obama win reelection. “I will knock on every door if I have to,” says the former nurse who spent more than two decades at the Veterans Affairs Department. Cox claims that he rapped on 200 doors in one day when he campaigned for Democrats during the 2006 midterm elections, citing his energy and drive to get the job done. He might have issues with Obama’s stance on federal pay, for example, but he’s certainly not taking any chances with the Republican alternative.

Cox will need that silver-tongued tenacity as federal employees and union members head into another year of proposals to cut their pay and benefits and an anti-government sentiment continues to simmer in some quarters, most notably the right wing of the Republican party. Cox, like John Gage, his fiery predecessor at AFGE, does not mince words. “There’s a war on government services,” he said in an interview with Government Executive shortly after his election this summer. “I won’t just classify it as a war on government employees, it’s government services.” 

Still, Cox has a kinder, gentler side that he’s not afraid to show when necessary. “I tend to listen a lot,” he says. “When I am ready to speak, you will know I am ready to speak.” Comparing his leadership style with that of Gage’s, the North Carolinian characterizes himself as “more participatory,” but is also quick to point out that he “can make a decision in a heartbeat.” Cox sees an overlap between his current vocation as a union official and his previous career as a caregiver. “There are days I miss being in nursing. But many days [now], I feel like I do the same kind of thing,” he says.

In fact, the two career tracks converged early on in Cox’s life. He started his private sector career as a food service worker in 1970, later becoming a registered nurse—no easy feat, especially at the time. Cox says he was rejected from the first nursing school he applied to because he was a man. “A man can be a nurse and a woman can be a doctor, and do a damn good job,” he says. 

In the early 1980s, his mother convinced him to take a nursing job at VA. “I almost did not take the job,” Cox says, but he recalls his mother telling him to take the position because it was a union job. “She didn’t say, ‘that’s a government job,’ she said, ‘that’s a union job.’ ”

It’s not surprising his mother made such a distinction. Both of Cox’s parents worked at the textile company Cannon Mills, which was headquartered in his hometown of Kannapolis, N.C., for more than a century before going bankrupt in 2003. Kannapolis, says Cox, was a town “where the company ruled, and I mean absolutely ruled.” He says people worked at Cannon Mills for low pay and minimum benefits, which included discounted towels and bedsheets, but not retirement security. “My parents lived and died without a pension, without ever having a sick day or paid annual leave, or anything of that nature,” he adds.

Cox is betting his strong belief in the power of unions to improve people’s lives, and his ability to articulate that will help him grow AFGE’s membership from 277,000 to 300,000 during the next year. He has his work cut out for him, especially at a time when much of the public believes feds are overpaid and underworked, at least compared with the private sector. But given his background and experience, Cox believes unions are integral to change. “If you want to make the middle class grow in this country,” he says, “I think the labor union is the answer.”