Unions to try to turn tide of negativity against feds

Wednesday - 1/26/2011, 7:37pm EST

By Meg Beasley
Reporter
Federal News Radio

Federal employee unions are getting ready for a potential battle over spending freezes and workforce cuts. And starting on Feb. 6 in Washington part of their strategy is to remind lawmakers and the rest of the country that federal employees are not to blame for the government's woes.

In Tuesday's State of the Union address, President Obama announced an economic plan that includes a five-year federal pay freeze and proposed a reorganization of the government.

The leadership of two of the largest federal employee unions released statements Wednesday in which they expressed caution about the reforms.

"[We] will be interested in hearing what reform proposals the president has in mind," stated Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Association (NTEU). "The central focus of any government reorganization has to be on the effective delivery of services to the American people. Where duplicate or overlapping functions or operations impact an area, change-even reductions or eliminations-may be necessary or advisable. NTEU strongly supports the idea of an effective, efficient government. One key way to achieve that, of course, is the inclusion at every stage of the discussion of the voices of frontline workers, who deal with people and the issues affecting them every day."

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), agreed that open discussions in () labor management forums should precede any decisions.

In a phone press conference Wednesday, Gage said AFGE is not opposed to change; that they, too, want an effective government. He added that while reorganization always means some job loss, it often creates new and better positions.

However, Gage isn't sold on the need for drastic changes. He pointed to the President's example of multiple agencies sharing responsibility for salmon.

"Fresh water salmon, saltwater salmon and smoked salmon -- it's a good line," said Gage in the press conference. "But it implies that the federal government is just fraught with incompetency. But when the President starts to look at these regulations that he says have no meaning… I think he'll find that there are solid reasons the government is set up the way it is and there are probably even more solid reasons why these regulations exist."

Gage also used the press conference to address what he says are virulent attacks on federal workers. He said there is a common misperception that federal employees are to blame for problems in the government.

"Federal employees are an easy whipping boy," said Gage. But they "had nothing to do with creating this deficit and they really don't have much to do with curing it. Putting personnel freezes and pay freezes and attacking healthcare and pensions is the wrong way to go."

Gage was disappointed Obama did not address the verbal attacks in the State of the Union address.

"I'm looking for the leadership of the President to stand up for his people," Gage said. "We've been working very hard for President Obama. We believed in him."

Gage said the Republican and Tea Party responses to the president's address were full of clichés and anti-government sentiment that will only make the problem worse.

Now, Gage said, federal employees are going to have to band together to stand up for themselves because it seems no one else will. Last week several employee union presidents met to discuss the best way to get out the facts about the federal workforce.

While Kelley said it was too early to discuss the unions' plans, Gage said AFGE is preparing to launch its own campaign to combat the harsh rhetoric.

AGFE members will gather outside of the Russell Senate office building on Feb. 6 to reaffirm their pledge as federal employees. They plan to take the message nationwide in hopes that citizens and members of congress will see that federal employees are not a part of the problem.

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