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More Reaction to Obama's Union Letters

By Ed O'Keefe

President-elect Barack Obama's pre-election promises to federal workers, reported in detail yesterday by the Washington Post, continue to draw praise from major public employee unions as an important step forward in revitalizing and strengthening the federal workforce.

On the eve of the Nov. 4 election, Obama wrote a series of letters to federal workers and their union leaders at nine departments and agencies outlining his proposals to strengthen the hand of workers and reduce government contracting.

"I fully anticipate a new era of cooperation between the administration and federal employee representatives which will help advance the important work that needs to be done to revitalize our economy, restore the public’s faith in government and bring new vitality to our federal agencies," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

But other labor activists and some conservatives voiced skepticism yesterday, saying that much will depend on available resources and the quality of appointments Obama makes to key agency positions.

“In essence he’s saying that ‘I’m not George Bush’ and putting it in writing," said Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who adds that Obama's statements in the letters are "Not terribly surprising.” PEER is most concerned about who will fill top spots at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department. Appointing Clinton-era veterans would not be wise, Ruch suggested. PEER issued a list of suggested names on Monday, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and former EPA official Mary Gade, who left the agency earlier this year following disagreements with the Bush administration.

"There are a lot of good people who are considered whistle blowers or dissidents that would generate a lot of excitement and real reform than just bringing back the Clinton people," Ruch said.

Others are displeased with Obama's promises to the unions.

"It is kind of remarkable that Obama went and did all of these separate letters with all of these particular promises," says Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute who would prefer to see Obama freeze federal pay in the coming years.

"He’ll be facing very high deficits as far as the eye can see. He can’t go around promising to be Santa Claus to everyone, he’s going to have to make trade-offs," Edwards said of Obama's commitments to federal workers. When combined, federal wages and benefits on average exceed the wages and benefits earned by private sector employees, Edwards noted in an article this past summer.

Obama's letters, among other things, outlined his intention to reduce contracting with firms doing business with the government, remove censorship from scientific research and promote tougher industry regulations to protect workers and the environment. He also made clear that the Department of Housing and Urban Development would have an enhanced role in restoring public confidence in the housing market, which has been shaken by the mortgage crisis.

Obama met several times with leaders of AFGE, the nation’s largest federal employee union. Following a meeting this past summer, union president John Gage requested more information from Obama that he could share with members, according to spokesman Michael Victorian. Most of the letters are dated Oct. 20 and were first reported about in early November.

"Obama has been vocal in his commitment to fully fund and staff the Social Security Administration, Bureau of Prisons, and the Department of Veterans Affairs; allow for collective bargaining rights at TSA; and honor the inherently government work of federal employees. He solidified his support by putting it in writing to us," according to the AFGE statement.

"[Obama’s] letters to employee organizations indicate that he fully understands that achieving his goals and those of the leaders of his Administration throughout the government will depend on the hundreds of thousands of people who work in the federal government," said Jonathan D. Breul, executive director of the IBM Center for The Business of Government. "While it has become a cliche to say that an organization's most valuable resource is its people, the statement is true."

"The challenge will be to tap into the skills, talent, ideas, and strong work ethic of the career civil service," Breul added.

It's clear Obama wants to make changes to improve the working conditions for federal employees and clearer still that their unions are eager for such changes. When and in what form remains to be seen. The Eye will be watching.

What Would You Do? Give the federal employee unions what they want regardless of cost or try to strike some sort of compromise in the middle? Will Obama's overtures help attract new people to public service? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

UPDATE 12:30 p.m. : Several readers have pointed out some discrepancies in the Cato Institute report cited above. Edwards' article does not account for the reduction in lower-level federal jobs that have been eliminated in favor of contracting positions. The elimination has led to a more highly skilled, higher compensated federal workforce. As others reported over the summer, the federal workers' benefits and wages averages Edwards cite do not account for differences in job skills or geography, thus skewing the data. The Eye apologies for any confusion and appreciates the head's up from his readers. Keep it coming!

By Ed O'Keefe  | November 18, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  What Would You Do?  
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Next: Eye Opener: Nov. 18, 2008

Comments

Who, on earth, cares what the Cato Institute has to say. It's pretty much a foregone conclusion anyway. Typical lazy WaPo reporting. You get a Right Wing talking point, but you don't research the story. The important thing here is whether Obama broke any rules (doesn't appear to be so) and whether there's any precedent for this (don't know, would be helpful for putting this in perspective).

Posted by: thebuckguy | November 18, 2008 9:10 AM | Report abuse

I think there is a link between the growth in "contracting out" and the Cato Institute's statistical gap between average Federal salaries and U.S. salaries. I have worked in a large federal building for almost 30 years, and when I arrived we had dozens of federal guards and maintenance personnel. Those jobs are long gone, replaced by contract guards and contract maintenance people. The removal of these low-pay jobs inevitably skews higher the average Federal salaries compared to the national average, which would still include these low-pay jobs.

Posted by: neal5 | November 18, 2008 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Hussein made those promises in the quiet. He didn't made them to you and me.

Ergo, those promises will go down the same path of all other promises: down the toilet.

Posted by: coqui44 | November 18, 2008 9:54 AM | Report abuse

Anything he does is fine with me. ESPECIALLY if it PISSES OFF the right wing trash.
W is DONE! Long Live W!

Posted by: TOMHERE | November 18, 2008 10:01 AM | Report abuse

"Anything he does is fine with me.
Posted by: TOMHERE | November 18, 2008 10:01 AM

That's a typical obamabot statement.

There's no difference between you and a republican who says 'anything Bush does is fine with me".

You are an uncritical citizen.

You are a puppet.

Posted by: coqui44 | November 18, 2008 10:11 AM | Report abuse

The major change that we need is in the A-76 process (contracting out) and they have to demand that any savings be in excess of 50% and that they be proved before the change and after five years. Most contracting out has failed and there has never been any effort to measure savings after the fact.

Posted by: gary4books | November 18, 2008 10:16 AM | Report abuse

The major change that we need is in the A-76 process (contracting out) and they have to demand that any savings be in excess of 50% and that they be proved before the change and after five years. Most contracting out has failed and there has never been any effort to measure savings after the fact.

Posted by: gary4books | November 18, 2008 10:16 AM | Report abuse

----------------------------------------

So... how can you say the contracting has failed?

If there is no evidence for their cost savings, then there is no evidence for their failure.

Posted by: mattsoundworld | November 18, 2008 10:40 AM | Report abuse

I sure would be interested in a history lesson here. In my military time we staffed the offices and other positions but some administration said military personnel were too expensive and the military was too big( they were 24/7 employees at the same price), so we brought in civil servants, then they were too expensive and gov't was too big so we brought in contractors !!! Which line are we selling this time ?

Posted by: shepVa | November 18, 2008 10:40 AM | Report abuse

coqui44,

Why do you refer to the President Elect by his middle name?

Also there is one very big difference between a republican that says anything Bush does is okay and a democrat that says he'll support President Elect Obama, Bush's record of total incompetence.

Posted by: jl_shaver | November 18, 2008 10:41 AM | Report abuse

A true misinterpretation of the press and national unions. The new administration has made it clear that outsourcing is in fact a way to make government more efficient and also promulgates employment growth in our country. Key here is that federal agencies will be held accountable for decisions that are made. Many laws that make outsourcing difficult will most likly be striken from the books within the first year of the new administration.

Posted by: tycorp1 | November 18, 2008 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Being a federal govt worker whats wrong with Obama attempting to encourage federal govt employees and their unions? I feel its a good thing that an administrator finally cares about the little people.

The Bush Administration with its private industry bull has instead of creating a better working govt has created dishearted and overworked employees. I have worked in govt for over 17 yrs and I have never seen so many disgruntle govt employees before. Basically it has grown into a unwritten form of Hebrew Slavery where you are given additional responsibilities that formerly belonged to higher paid specialists and administrators at lower pay. This administration has definitely gone overboard with the use of the "other duties as assigned" pushing all types of other duties on its workers with no pay increases or incentives.

Hopefully Obama can actually make the change back to where govt workers can feel good about and enjoy doing their jobs again. I personally feel that hes making a good start.

Posted by: msruby36 | November 18, 2008 10:46 AM | Report abuse

msruby36 said

I have worked in govt for over 17 yrs and...

.. and I've had to switch jobs 4 times in the last 6 years (and Im an engineer), including a position and pay cut after 9/11 tanked the telecom industry, followed by a move from MD to CT.

17 years... you have ZERO room to complain.

Posted by: mattsoundworld | November 18, 2008 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Interesting...the Cato people wish for frozen salaries and decry big government. If the salaries and benies are sooooo good in federal service, then WHY don't more of your brilliant go-getter private sector maverick up-and-coming no holds barred can-do types want to work in goverment? Perhaps because their true nature will be revealed when given real responsibility as a goverment employee who is charged with working within the law for the benefit of the public.

Posted by: theresathefarmer | November 18, 2008 11:33 AM | Report abuse

"If the salaries and benies are sooooo good in federal service, then WHY don't more of your brilliant go-getter private sector maverick up-and-coming no holds barred can-do types want to work in goverment? Perhaps because their true nature will be revealed when given real responsibility as a goverment employee who is charged with working within the law for the benefit of the public."

Yeah right. I'm sitting about 30 feet away from a trio of federal employees - three fat women who do nothing but chat on the phone all day and take ridiculously long lunches so they can shop. They leave when they feel like it. Can't be fired because they are of a certain race. There's your hard-working federal employee for you. They wouldn't last one week in the private sector.

Posted by: realist2 | November 18, 2008 11:43 AM | Report abuse

As a retired IT/IS employee at the highest technical, non-management level for state government agency, I saw contracts awarded to national consulting firms as well as local contractors. Typically the worst performance came from the national software companies. The contractors were selected on the basis of reputation, capabilities, and "support" as sold by corporate executive sales staff to senior state management. Input from employees ultimately responsible for using and maintaining the product was minimized or ignored. Ultimately of course, the products would not meet performance specification and delivery months overdue.

There was never an honest product evaluation, especially to the public, because such information is only released through political hacks and it was political appointees who were responsible for the fiasco!

Senior non-management staff are in the best position to evaluate a product. They use, maintain, operate, and support the product at all levels. More important--they have nothing to gain by telling the truth but everything to lose if they are identified.

Posted by: ChoKum | November 18, 2008 11:47 AM | Report abuse

I am a Federal employee. No one in my agency is eligible to join a Union. I have worked as many as 16 hours in a day, with no extra pay for the extra hours. People who do what I do for a living outside of the government make 2-3 times what I make in salary.

Are these complaints? No, they are factual statements. If I didn't like the facts of my life, I would change them. I encourage others to do the same, whether you're a Federal employee (msruby36) or not (mattsoundworld).

Posted by: Heady-By | November 18, 2008 12:22 PM | Report abuse

So now its clear - the Federal Bureacracy is highly politicized and supporting one candidate and one party.

This will be disastrous for the USA in the long-term.

Posted by: pgr88 | November 18, 2008 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Obama plans to buy every vote in America.

Posted by: Lewisp1 | November 18, 2008 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Recycling Clinton appointees to the transition team at HUD does not signal change nor much hope for the agency regardless of the sentiment expressed in Obama's letter to HUD. Many of the Clinton appointees were responsible for the personnel practices that led to chaos and dismal morale at HUD compromising the effectiveness of HUD and leading to the exodus or forced transfer of many talented career employees. It is correct that the Bush appointees dramatically accelerated the deterioration of the agency and contributed the element of lawlessness during their reign. But, as noted in a different post, the remedy does not rest with Clinton era appointees, but in seeking talented, highly qualified persons, both career as well as politicals, through an extremely rigorous, merit-based selection process that avoids the homosocial reproduction which prevents positive, substantive change from occurring.

In order for HUD to help lead the resurrection of the housing industry, its management problems, which have become part of the accepted structure at HUD, must be resolved and can only be resolved by politicals who bring different perspectives and skills to HUD.

Posted by: CriticalEye | November 18, 2008 1:15 PM | Report abuse

As a TSA employee I'm very encouraged by President-Elect Obama's willingness to allow us to have collective bargaining rights. My co-workers are also very optimistic about this news. We have a very broken down system of pay raises and promotions frought with favoritism and lack of meaningful oversight. Finally, we also have employee-management focus groups designed to find solutions to work related
issues, but in reality these meetings have
accomplished nothing substative. Many of our issues need to be resolved on a national level and hopefully change is on the way.

Posted by: johnsus | November 18, 2008 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Looks like "coqui44" is getting in some kind of depression mode? Keep calm baby; you been a puppet and hoped for the same again.
I don't care either what he does. We are all having high hopes on him. Atleast he thinks before he leeps.

Posted by: dhir8011a | November 18, 2008 2:06 PM | Report abuse

"Recycling Clinton appointees to the transition team at HUD does not signal change nor much hope for the agency regardless of the sentiment expressed in Obama's letter to HUD."

Change does not in most cases mean change of personnel. It means change is thinking, processes, procedures and expectations. I have read where many people are concerned that former Clinton aids have been appointed to positions in an Obama administration. This bodes well because you will have individuals that can hit the ground running.

The change will come with the president's objectives not necessarily with the persons in places.

Posted by: justonevoice | November 18, 2008 2:17 PM | Report abuse

What a blessing that now enhanced union power at the Federal level under Obama can bring us the same excellence and value we already enjoy in K-12 education, urban policing and the automobile industry.

Posted by: robert17 | November 18, 2008 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Excuse me? Somebody smack Rhee and Fenty over the head with this article.

Posted by: candycane1 | November 18, 2008 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Dumb article!
It's sad when the govt cuts from the bottom.
The Cog works in the govt it's management you have to worry about.

Posted by: shamken | November 18, 2008 2:58 PM | Report abuse

President-Elect Obama please take a look at www.Fedcure.org regarding parole and good time for federal prisoners. The approval of these bills would help with the BOP budget as well as the overcrowding of the prison system. There are many who have served their debts to society (some in prison over 20 years for non-violent offenses) and if given a chance they could become productive citizens of society again. Thank you, Carolyn Stanford

Posted by: cds1591 | November 18, 2008 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Obama plans to buy every vote in America.

Posted by: Lewisp1 | November 18, 2008 1:01 PM | Report abuse
-------------------------------------------
As opposed to your hero W, who stole so many of them.

Oh, wait. He only stole them the SECOND time around. The Supremes stopped the count the first time around, giving us the first serving of that idiot.

Posted by: dennissuper | November 18, 2008 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps this author is speaking for other government departments being paid more than the private sector, but that is NOT true of the Postal Service. Postal Employees are paid less than the private sector and additional federal holidays and such do NOT apply to postal workers. Postal workers are federal employees, but many of the federal rules/agendas do not apply to USPS employees. It's only the big shot federal workers that get the high pays--all the political people, not the actual workers!!!

I challenge this author to compare postal workers pay with the private sector and the big federal politicians before he boasts that federal workers are paid high and better!! Then he will have to recant what he has written!!!!

Posted by: crazykathyp | November 18, 2008 7:34 PM | Report abuse

I'd truly like to see that the head of state and the rank and file Union Members work together. Maybe this is that wonderful CHANGE Obama talked around. On the other hand Many years of watching Democrats bundle up to screwing society over and over again; I must reserve judgement until later.

Posted by: jackolantyrn356 | November 18, 2008 10:42 PM | Report abuse

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