Message is key in pay and benefits fight

Thursday, August 11, 2011

(Federal Employees News Digest)

For this weeks issue, FENDs Nathan Abse interviewed Carl Goldman, an officer with a union not usually associated with representing federal employeesthe American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Goldman is executive director of AFSCME Council 26, a coalition of 18 federal local unions, primarily in the Washington, D.C., area. In our conversation, Goldman stressed the importance of activismgetting information outin feds battle to defend their pay and benefits.

Q&A AFSCMEs Carl Goldman

What federal employees does AFSCME represent?

Goldman: We represent five agencies in the Department of Agriculture, employees at the Department of Justiceincluding in the Office of Justice Programs, Justice Management Division, and the U.S. Parole Commissionmost of FAA headquarters, most of the Library of Congress. We also represent the Architect of the Capitolthe folks who maintain the congressional office buildings, maintaining that physical plant, as well as the U.S. Botanical Gardens. We recently organized the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center. At the Voice of America, we represent the unit of radio and broadcast technicians. We also represent the Commission on Civil Rights, and the Peace Corpsnot the volunteers, obviouslythe Corporation for National and Community Service, which includes Americorps and other volunteer programs.

How many feds?

Goldman: All told somewhere between 8,500 and 8,800 federal employees. The overwhelming majority are in the Washington, D.C., area.

What are some of the most active areas of your work in the federal arena? What issues are you fighting hardest for, and how exactly are you doing that?

Goldman: We do all the important things that any union doeswhich are, as I see it, giving employees a voice at work. We do that through collective bargaining and meetings with management, and we also provide representation. We emphasize a strong steward structure. We do a lot of training through our rank-and-file leaders. This is our ongoing union work. But the biggest challenge facing us is really the same chief challenge facing all federal unionsand really all public employeesand thats the attacks coming down on our pay and benefits. We resist these by getting information out. We just have implemented an e-activism system, and through this and other means we contact our political leaders. In our online activism campaign, our members are using their personal e-mail [on their own time, as required by law]. We are in the process of mobilizing our members against these attacksand we are working with the Federal Workers Alliance and the Federal Postal Alliance on this. To reach our goals and defend our members, with all of us working together.

Are you hopeful that fed pay and benefits can be defended successfully? Public opinion seems to be running against feds and other public employees.

Goldman: Actually, polls show that people are all over the map on this. They have a problem with deficit spending and raising the debt limit. But when you ask people about specific programs, its a very different story. They dont want to cut a lot of the work that government does. What we believe is that the issue of deficits is not really solved by taking a meat cleaver to federal programs. Think about this: Who caused the financial meltdown? It was Wall Street. There are major corporations, like GE, who not only didnt pay any taxes but got rebates back from the government. What has been done by a lot of politicians has led to a system that keeps rewarding them, and rewarding them again, with tax breaks. So we have a very distorted tax system. Its not just at the federal level. Its in local government, and state government. Look at whats happened in Wisconsin. Gov. Walker said he needed, that the state was short, a lot of money. But the amount of deficit he wanted to cover was roughly equal to the tax cuts for the rich that his Republican-dominated state senate and assembly had just voted for. So he created a problem by approving these tax giveaways for the wealthy and corporations, and then he wants state employees to pay for itand thats basically whats happening with the federal government, too.

Are you optimistic, despite these trends, that you can protect decent compensation and benefits for your members who are federal employees?

Goldman: The political winds are against us, and I dont think its necessarily so much from the American people, but rather from our politicians. You have Republicans whose answer for everything is tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations, and Democrats who dont want to stand up to them. Its not just us. The American Federation of Government Employees is on this; the National Treasury Employees Union is doing it, the Federal Workers Allianceand were saying: Go to the people who have benefited while the rest of us have suffered. Get tax money from them. Make the very rich and corporations pay their fair share. It will go a long way toward solving the deficit. We are pushing federal workers to spread that message, and send that message to political leaders. All the unions sent that message to Vice President Biden. We are not looking at this situation through rose-tinted glasses. We understand this is very difficult. The administration has done a lot of good things. But they also have made a lot of compromises, hoping that the other side will do the samefor instance, if the administration offers a two-year pay freeze, the other side will back down. They havent.

What would you most like to see President Obama do or say for feds?

Goldman: I would like him to say that government programs are not the problem. I would like him to go back to good, old-fashioned Keynesian economics, which is common sense. I would like him to say, flatly, you dont reduce employment during a recession, because that just deepens the recession. Id like him to say that the people who have had the big party over the last dozen years or so should now pay for the mess. Id also like him to say the U wordand thats union. That as unions grew, the income of workers grew. And to say that as unionsparticularly in the private sectorhave been shrinking, theres been a direct correlation [downward] in the income for workers.

Some federal unions, around the time of the shutdown threat months ago, also engaged in street marches.

Goldman: I think there are a lot of things we have to do. Hitting the streets is one of them, and its something thats important. Mobilizing our members is important. But were not just mobilizing our membersand [they must] not just talk to Congress, but also talk to their neighbors and people who are not even in the federal sectortheir relatives, for instanceto talk about and publicize the important work that theyre doing. At the Department of Agriculture, for instance, we have people in our union who run rural housing programs, and they help people of modest means in rural America have a place to live. This is a story that needs to be told.

Used with permission. 2011 Copyright 1105 Media Inc., All rights reserved.


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