Some lawmakers agree it's time to change the message on feds.
Lawmakers from both parties addressing unionized federal employees at a conference Monday pledged more support and respect for the civil service, but the union itself promised to “whoop [the] ass” of Congress if it stood in the group’s way.
At its annual legislative gathering, the American Federation of Government Employees vowed to combat any congressional efforts to shrink the federal workforce, cut pay and benefits or weaken unions. While Congress has succeeded in slashing agency rolls and freezing pay, union leaders said, those actions have better positioned the union to prevent similar efforts in the future.
Every time the “fools” in Congress try to hurt the federal workforce, said AFGE National President J. David Cox in a passionate address to his members, “We get bigger. We get stronger and we fight harder.”
He added: “We are a force to be reckoned with and we are a force that will open up the biggest can of whoop ass on anyone” who votes against the union’s interests.
Cox said a decade or more ago, AFGE would not have been able to fight the battles it has or expects in the next Congress. The assault on the federal workforce, however, has driven workers to the union. The results were on display at the Washington, D.C., event, with a record high of more than 1,000 members in attendance. AFGE currently has about 291,000 members on its rolls -- its highest-ever total -- and hopes to reach 300,000 by the end of the year.
The union chief called on each of those members to help push its agenda.
“I’m begging you,” he said, “I’m pleading with you: Get in the fight.”
Lawmakers who addressed the attendees emphasized they would not be alone in that struggle; the lawmakers promised to bring the message of the positive and essential work feds do back to their colleagues and into the public sphere.
Freshman Congressman Don Beyer, D-Va., promised to be a “champion” for federal employees, adding the “critical question” for the workforce is how to change the perception of civil servants. He pledged to mention the positive work feds do in every speech he gives, suggested creating public service announcements highlighting federal employees and even proposed someone write a movie in which an “anonymous civil servant” is the hero.
“We have a great, great story to tell,” Beyer said of the federal workforce. “We just have to find every possible way to tell it.”
Beyer and his fellow Virginian, Republican Rep. Rob Wittman, agreed one crucial step to demonstrating that support is to repeal the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. Wittman said Congress should empower the federal workforce to determine how to run things more efficiently.
Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., said sequestration should end because federal employees have been targeted enough.
“There is no one who knows what austerity is or looks like, smells like, or feels like when you go to the grocery store, [more] than the federal worker,” she said.
Wittman added there was a “good chance” Congress would agree to repeal the budget caps, a move supported by President Obama.
Cox had his own idea for how to make sure that happens.
“If I meet one more politician who tells me we need to tighten our belts, I’m going to take my belt off and I’m going to whoop his ass,” he said.
The lawmakers also agreed on the need for a pay raise for federal employees. Wittman, like House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz last week, said he supported a pay raise for feds but declined to elaborate on how much -- even when asked directly by reporters after his speech.
Republicans “are still in the process of negotiating” all the different aspects of the party’s budget proposal, including the size of the pay raise, Wittman said. Cox speculated based on his own conversations that the majority party in both the House and Senate would not go lower than Obama’s 1.3 percent proposed increase, and it may even go higher.
Lawmakers and union members spoke of the need to fund the Homeland Security Department past Feb. 27, but Wittman would not commit to supporting a “clean” spending bill free of policy riders to undo Obama’s executive immigration actions. The White House has said Obama would veto any bill with such provisions. Cox noted a shutdown would force 86 percent of DHS’ employees to report to work without getting paid, something no other employer in the country can require.
AFGE is currently mobilizing its members to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including its highest ever number of Republicans, to pitch the value of the federal workforce and to lobby for its legislative goals. While even Cox acknowledged it was going to be a tough fight, not every card is stacked against them.
“Thank you for your commitment to public service,” Edwards said. “Don’t let anyone underestimate that. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s not of value.”
(Image via Flickr user AFGE)
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