More Reaction to Obama's Union Letters
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!
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