WASHINGTON, DC – “Five point one! Five point one! Five point one!” With a police motorcycle escort clearing the way, scores of American Federation of Government Employees members chanted as they marched up to Capitol Hill on March 29. The marching contingent’s mantra was a reference to the FAIR Act, which if passed by Congress would boost federal civil service pay by 4.1 percent across-the-board, plus a one-percent increase in locality pay.
“For more than two years now, through the worst pandemic in more than a century, AFGE members have shown up and kept performing their work — our Department of Defense Employees, Correction Officers, Custom and Border Patrol Officers, firefighters, and our AFGE Veterans Affairs professionals, who always put the welfare of America’s heroes first,” bellowed AFGE President Dr. Everett Kelley, from the rally stage on the Capitol Grounds.
Dr. Kelley, sounding every bit like the pastor he has been, railed against the Veterans Administration for continuing to advance a Trump-era initiative, the Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission that purports to “modernize and realign” the VA’s hospital and clinic network. The union and their allies in Congress counter the AIR Commission that was passed by Congress in 2018, was actually designed to downsize and privatize the healthcare lifeline for the nation’s veterans.
“In exchange for their courage and devotion our Veterans Administration members are now having their jobs and mission threatened from within by a closure commission,” Dr. Kelley told the energized crowd from around the country. Of particular concern to the union’s subject matter experts is that the plan for ‘right sizing’ the VA is based on a market analysis that predates the ongoing COVID pandemic, which is continuing to challenge the nation’s entire healthcare infrastructure.
A HEAVY BURDEN
In an interview before the rally with LaborPress, Dr. Kelly confirmed the union had lost at least 600 members during COVID, many through their occupational exposure to the often deadly virus. Union officials have confirmed they have anecdotal reports of so-called long COVID symptoms among their members of varying severity that have persisted months after the initial infection.
The AFGE president said he has tried to call the family of each union member who died in the pandemic. “It’s something I don’t wish of anyone because we know that person is not coming back and that person gave their life, right — for their job —knowing the hazard and in many cases they were not protected at all,” he told LaborPress. “It was very difficult [to get information].”We had to fight. We had to expose. We had to do all kind of things just to get information — and to be honest with you, we really don’t know the real amount. There’s so much we don’t know. It really varies by agency.”
Early on, the union’s TSA officers were some of the first to be infected and killed by COVID. AFGE members and their families serving in congregant facilities like the ones run by the Veteran’s Administration and the Bureau of Prisons were particularly hard hit, as well as those with frontline job titles like USDA inspector in the nation’s meat processing plants were also put at significant risk. Throughout the pandemic, particularly during the Trump administration, federal agencies refused to provide the union with any information about the status of the pandemic within their operations as the death toll mounted.
Back in 2020, AFGE, along with Kalijarvi, Chuli, Newman & Fitch, filed a class action lawsuit against the federal government for premium hazard pay on behalf of tens of thousands of federal workers in frontline agencies like the USDA, the Bureau of Prisons, Department of Defense, TSA and several others that saw COVID deaths and infections. That lawsuit is still pending.
David Borer, AFGE’s general counsel, told LaborPress that “early on, we had a real crisis in the federal prisons when COVID got into these facilities and then we had the government doing things like transferring COVID positive patients to different facilities and exposing more people.”
‘PRESIDENTS NOT KINGS’
The AFGE Capitol Hill rally comes after several very difficult years for the federal union workforce which was targeted in May of 2018 by President Trump with several executive orders that sought to eliminate the presence and role of the unions in the federal workforce. During Trump’s tumultuous tenure, his administration targeted for downsizing and closure offices that were part of the scientific expertise staffs that helped agencies like the USDA and EPA monitor corporate compliance with federal law.
In August of 2018, in her now famous ‘Presidents are not Kings’ ruling, then U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Jackson, ruled that Trump’s anti-union executive orders violated the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the separation of powers among the three branches of the Federal government. In her 119-page opinion, President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee conceded that while it was well within Trump’s purview to issue Executive Orders on labor relations, those directives could not undermine existing and well-established collective bargaining rights. “And because many of the executive order provisions that the unions challenge have that effect, this court concludes that the President has overstepped his bounds,” Jackson wrote.
Even before Trump came to power, the increasingly rightward drift of the Republican Congressional caucus powered the rise to key positions of leadership of members ideologically committed to radically reducing the size of the federal civil service, including the Internal Revenue Service, while privatizing other federal government functions to politically connected contractors.
As a consequence, since 2011 a combination of pay freezes and benefit rollbacks has meant that federal workers “forfeited $246 billion,” according to AFGE. And like the rest of the American workforce, federal workers wages, when accounting for inflation, are 9.2 percent lower than they were a decade ago by the union’s calculations. According to the independent Federal Salary Council, federal worker salaries are 23-percent lower that what’s paid to workers performing similar functions in the private sector. That disparity is particularly pronounced in the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Safety Administration’s airport screeners’ title where pay can be as low as $30,000 per year.
President Biden’s latest budget proposal calls for an average 30-percent pay boost for this workforce, as well as a 20-percent increase in the base pay for the nation’s federal air marshals. Throughout the pandemic, the FAA has documented a dramatic surge in violent attacks by air travelers, including in-flight disruptions involving the enforcement of masking requirements.
MUST WORK & FOOD PANTRIES
From December 22, 2018 through January 25, 2019, Trump presided over a 35 day shutdown of the federal government, the longest in history. However, hundreds of thousands of essential workers in frontline agencies like the Veterans Administration, the Transportation Safety Administration and the Bureau of Prisons had to continue to work without getting paid. Across the country local news outlets reported that thousands of these federal civil servants had to resort to local food banks and pantries. Ultimately, once the government shutdown ended, Congress approved legislation to retroactively compensate those workers as well as those who were furloughed.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Fight Attendants-CWA, who during the Trump shutdown called for a national general strike, and is contemplating a challenge to AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, was a rally favorite.
“Three years ago, we were in the middle of the longest government shutdown this country has ever faced,” Nelson told the crowd. “ Three years ago, flight attendants stood with you because we know if you can’t do your job, we can’t do our job and an attack on federal workers, is an attack on Americans,” Nelson said. “We said with two million people out of work, 400,000 people forced to go back to work for free what is the American labor movement waiting for? You are labor’s fight.”
She continued. “Let me make this clear — when they come and try to close Social Security offices — when they come for your collective bargaining rights — when they try to put up a mission to close VA facilities— this is an attack on all Americans. What they are trying to do is privatize everything for the privateers and give nothing to the American people.”
Union leaders were joined by several members of Congress including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) as well as Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
“For almost eight years, we went through a Republican majority that wanted to take away your organizing rights — wanted to take away your right to representation in the workplace, your right to appeal grievances — your right to be recognized as a union,” said Rep. Gerry Connelly (D.Va.), chair of the Subcommittee on Government Operations. “We fought them on every one of those depredations, and with your help, succeeded. But what it reminded us is, it matters who is in charge.”
The day before the high-profile rally on Capitol Hill, AFGE’s delegates heard from AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, who told the union audience they needed to return home to fire up their fellow members — “because we can’t afford to go backward where our lives and livelihoods are treated like toys in a game of deranged chess where the threat of a government shutdown or debt default are used as political tactics at pour expense.”
Shuler told the delegates that as they went about lobbying their members of Congress they should feel confident because they knew “more than any person on that Hill” because they were speaking from their “lived experience.”
While throughout the AFGE’s national conference delegates heard from top Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), chair of the House Oversight Committee — they did hear from at least one Republican House member, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). The Pennsylvania Congressman, who was previously endorsed by the AFGE, previously worked as a clerk in the federal courts and as an FBI agent before getting elected to Congress.
At the March 28 session of the conference, Fitzpatrick told the audience that back in 2018, he found it “ironic” that some members of his party were pushing for the government shutdown, as was President Trump, to protest inadequate protections at the U.S.’s borders. “Help me understand this — you want to furlough Custom & Border Protection, Border Patrol and the Coast Guard, the three entities responsible for border security? Do I have that right?”
Historically, the nation’s federal civil servants and their unions have been heavily courted by both Republican and Democratic Congressional campaigns, particularly in rural states and swing districts, where their votes can determine the outcome of a race.
A case in point would be the late Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) who died earlier this month. The 88-year-old Congressman, the longest serving Republican, was first elected in 1973, and throughout his career was one of the AFGE’s most ardent supporters. At the start of the AFGE Capitol Hill rally, Dr. Kelley asked the March 29 lunchtime rally crowd for a moment of silence to honor Young who died March 18.
With the control of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate to be determined by a handful of seats, it could be the two million often maligned federal civil servants that have the last word.