Federal Unions: Dynamos or Dinosaurs?

Thursday - 6/3/2010, 4:00am EDT

Outside of the U.S. Postal Service most federal workers don't belong to unions, even though most rank-and-file feds are represented by unions. And enjoy benefits won by unions both on Capitol Hill and within individual agencies.

Some union members vocally resent the fact that their dues (which by private sector union standards are very, very low) pay for lobbying and legal efforts that also help "free riders." In fact 2009 was one of the best, maybe the best, year on Capitol Hill that federal workers and retirees have ever (or will ever) have thanks mostly to organized feds and retirees.

On the other hand...

Many non-members either don't believe in unions, don't see the need (since they can't bargain over wages or call strikes) for unions, or don't want representation that in their view has become more partisan in recent years. With a definite tilt to Democratic candidates. As one long-time fed put it, "the union that wants me to join is acting like it's still the 1930s...they act like we are battling the old coal or railroad companies."

A retired federal labor-management expert said "it's like the 'which came first the chicken or the egg?' question. Are Republicans anti-worker, anti-fed and anti-union and, if so, did the unions make them that way? Write about that when you figure that one out!"

Appearing on our "Your Turn with Mike Causey" radio show yesterday, NTEU President Colleen Kelley said the union "supports politicians who support federal workers" and that party affiliation doesn't matter and isn't considered. The show, which includes a how-Congress-really-works session with long-time NARFE legislative director Judy Park, is archived so you can listen anytime by clicking here.

Earlier we touched on the to-join-or-not-to-join question and got some interesting comments from readers. Such as:

  • "Mike, if you use any of my comments, please sign it 'Anonymous.' I don't need any problems with our agency's union management or members.

    "I'm not a union member and haven't been since representation was approved and then recertified in very close votes at our agency. The primary reason is my objection to supporting the union's political activities which I disagree with at least 90% of the time. In addition, the union has no bargaining authority over compensation related issues at our agency which reduces the potential benefit to our employees.

    "On a positive note, I have seen some work life and benefit issues where they have probably been a factor in pushing our management to do more. Bottom line is I don't see where the gains have exceeded the cost had I been a dues paying member. Factor in the political activism and it was a 'no brainer' for me." Anonymous

  • "Since I am not, never have been or ever will be a Democrat, I would never join this arm of the Democratic Party. The unions do not represent workers, they raise money for Democratic Congressman they have bought already or plan to buy in the future." Frank In Austin

  • "Like many movements, organized labor may feel like it can justify itself by pointing backwards and saying 'look what we've done for you.' However, we live in a what have you done for me lately world...which isn't all bad, as it forces us to produce in the here and now. I believe in organized labor and I'm a member of NTEU. But, in my mind, NTEU is always required to operate and be effective in the present." Pat

  • "I'm a member of AFGE (although work says I'm not eligible to be a member and transferred me to NSPS).

    "I think that the few members are supporting the masses who refuse to join unless they have a work issue that requires the union's help to resolve. When we few retire and no one is left to fund the union I don't know what workers are going to do when they need help.

    "Workers need unions to protect them from bad bosses. Over the years I have seen a number of anti-union workers, and a few bosses, who have turned to the union for support. After years of bad-mouthing the union they found that when they needed help from an incompetent or vicious boss, only the union was willing and able to help them.

    "I am curious what the current self-interested group of workers will do when the union folds because of lack of support." Alice

  • "It doesn't matter that unions have to represent you whether or not you are a member; unions need funds in order to operate. I was always a union member when I was eligible to be a union member. When I was promoted to management, I began paying dues to NARFE. Someone has to look out for my interests.