Last December, when then-President Obama was set to announce he was upping the planned federal pay raise to 2.1 percent, the head of the National Treasury Employees Union received a call from a contact at the Office of Management and Budget. “I have good news,” the official told NTEU National President Tony Reardon. The pay raise, he said, was due in no small part to NTEU’s efforts.
Such self-congratulatory stories formed only part of Reardon’s talk to hundreds who gathered on Wednesday for NTEU’s annual legislative conference in Washington. The advent of the Trump era has heightened prospects for an array of Republican bills that would, as Reardon put it, threaten “collective bargaining and due process” at the same time President Trump is proposing large-scale cuts in agency budgets—37 percent at the State Department, 24 percent at the Environmental Protection Agency and 14 percent at the Internal Revenue Service, for instance.
“This is the time to rally for your job, your benefits, your country,” Reardon said in opening the three-day blitz of visits to lawmakers’ offices that includes a Thursday rally on East Front of the Capitol. “We fight to protect each other,” he said, while also challenging what the union sees as a threat to services upon which American taxpayers depend, from air traffic control to food safety to border protection.
A new survey of NTEU leaders who represent 31 agencies in its 121 chapters nationwide found palpable unease last month. Eighty-one percent reported declining morale; 79 percent wished Congress better understood that federal workers are struggling middle class people; 78 percent feared for their job security; 71 percent feared cuts to pay and benefits; 65 percent worried over a lack of agency funding; 60 percent feared cuts to retirement benefits; and 58 percent worried over Trump’s hiring freeze.
“Federal employees have earned the trust of the American public,” said a self-proclaimed fan, Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., singling out such agencies as the Securities and Exchange Commission and Customs and Border Protection bureau. “But every time we serve dinner we don’t think about how the food inspectors inspected for quality—it’s simply by trust. That’s a badge of honor but also a curse,” Crowley told the audience. Federal employees are vulnerable to such simplified attacks as the hiring freeze, “which makes a good sound bite but is bad policy that hurts real people,” he said. His example: the 45,000 open positions at the Veterans Affairs Department could go unfilled for a while.
Trump is offering “only simple answers to great complex problems; they distract but never address the big issues,” Crowley added. “The hiring freeze and his so-called budget are sick jokes they play on American politics, until they’re not.” He urged NTEU members to “stay strong and continue to serve the American people.”
Also at the podium was Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., who just won a key slot on the appropriations panel. “In this toxic environment, it’s easy to beat up” on federal employees and “diminish” them with a label such as bureaucrat, he said. He bemoaned the fact that modern consumers of news get their information from mobile devices “that aren’t necessarily your friend” because they give users the information they want to hear. When people read newspapers, “they read things they disagreed with,” Quigley said.
He suggested the union take a page from Obama and find a middle ground between the left’s “tax and spend” and the right’s hatred of government. “The lesson from all this is that government matters, but it needs to be as efficient as possible because tax dollars are scarce,” Quigley said. Now is not the time, he warned, “to hear anything that puts a bad light on federal workers, because it will be exploited.”
To get the message of federal employees’ value across to lawmakers, Quigley advised NTEU to “understand what their agenda is and how you fit into it” rather than hoping the member “will care because he loves you. There has to be some other reason—keeping constituents safer, making government more efficient or bringing in revenue.”
NTEU boiled its 2017 agenda down to five areas: Securing fair pay for federal employees; protecting retirement benefits from attempted cuts; preserving the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program from voucher reforms; safeguarding workplace fairness by opposing bills, for example, to allow at-will employment without no due process; and achieving agency missions at a time when many are understaffed and budgets are being cut.
“Today more than ever, we need you to keep showing up, standing up and continuing to speak up,” Reardon exhorted the group after playing a video that showcased NTEU accomplishments. The union also backs the Fair Act, which would provide a 3.2 percent pay raise; paid parental leave; and a package by 14 senators called “Five Fights for Federal Employees.” Finally, it is forming partnerships with groups such as the American Federation of Government Employees and the Federal Postal Coalition to widen appeal to Congress.
Reardon acknowledged to reporters that there are Trump supporters in the union. While respecting their rights, he said he simply reminds them of the pay issues at stake and asks that they keep an open mind.
Always of special interest to NTEU are the ongoing budget difficulties at the IRS that have cost it 17,000 employees and $1 billion over the past six years. Reardon told reporters on Wednesday that he was “buoyed” by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s comment during his confirmation hearing that the tax agency could perform better with more employees. “We add people, we add money,” Reardon paraphrased, noting that IRS collects 93 percent of agency revenue.
Reardon has tried to make that “business model” case to Republican appropriators who disfavor the IRS and are put off by its alleged politicization, citing the estimated $458 billion in taxes that go uncollected every year. “But Congress is not looking at it from a business perspective,” he added, “and many don’t understand what the IRS does.” His staff has hopes that the Trump team may see things anew, with one IRS employee recently telling Reardon, “We are not part of the swamp.”