FEDERAL WORKFORCE:

Unions launch campaigns to protect government employees in debt deal

As Congress and the White House rush to find a debt limit compromise and stave off a looming national default, federal union officials are increasingly alarmed that government workers are going to bear the brunt of any deal that gets made.

And that concern has been ratcheted up this week as several eleventh-hour plans call for drastic reductions for federal employees.

Today, the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) is trying to fight back with a new public relations campaign aimed at linking the work federal employees do to the public's quality of life.

"From guarding our borders to safeguarding the food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink, to administering the school lunch program so children do not go hungry, federal employees perform so many critical tasks for our nation each and every day," Colleen Kelley, president of the 150,000-member NTEU, said in a statement today. "And all too often, we take this dedicated and effective service for granted."

The public service announcements produced by NTEU were distributed to 200 television and 600 radio stations nationwide this week. The release is being timed to coincide with rallies across the country. In addition NTEU, which represents workers in 31 agencies, launched a new Web site to promote the campaign, which it has dubbed "Federal Employees ... They Work for U.S."

"It's part of a comprehensive effort on our part to fight back for federal workers," Kelley said today. "We think this campaign is necessary because of the continuing attack on federal employees."

Meanwhile, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has begun to organize rallies outside the offices of members of Congress they believe are leading the charge against federal workers. After targeting the offices of House Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and two other conservative Republicans already this summer, AFGE has 2 dozen rallies planned for the August recess.

But with less than two weeks before the government will begin running out of money to pay its bills, the options currently on the table are not great for federal workers -- who are already operating under a pay freeze and saw Congress slash billions of dollars from agency budgets in a 2011 budget compromise earlier this spring.

A framework laid out by a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Six this week would direct Congress to find $65 billion in entitlement savings in the coming years. Union officials are worried that federal retirement and health care programs will be a primary target of that effort.

Earlier this week, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) introduced a proposal to find $9 trillion in deficit savings over the next 10 years. Part of that plan includes cutting some 300,000 federal workers over the next decade, extending the federal pay freeze by a year, freezing bonus pay through 2013 and putting restrictions on federal employee leave time and travel budgets.

AFGE President John Gage told the Federal Times yesterday that top House Democrats have informed him of a budget plan in the works in that chamber that would include provisions to force new federal employees to pay nearly seven times what current employees pay for the Federal Employees Retirement System. Current employees would also see steep increases in their contribution rates, as would participants in the Civil Service Retirement System. Pension calculation rates and cost-of-living adjustment rates for federal retirees would also be changed under that proposal.

"Each budget plan being offered is more outlandish than the last, and as usual, federal workers are in the crosshairs," said National Federation of Federal Employees legislative director Randy Erwin in a release this week. "I'm sick and tired of lawmakers protecting their special interests and pet projects then turning around and asking federal workers to pay for it."

Still, the most immediate effect on federal employees could come Aug. 3, if a deal is not reached to raise the debt ceiling by then. Without a deal the entire federal government could be forced into a shutdown beyond even what was contemplated during the 2011 budget compromise earlier this spring (E&E Daily, July 20).

It is a scenario the Obama administration has declined to speculate on. Spokesmen for the Office of Management and Budget, U.S. EPA and the Department of Energy all gave the same response when asked about a potential shutdown this week.

"As the president has said repeatedly over the past six months, there is no alternative to raising the debt limit," the spokesmen said. "The only way to prevent a default crisis and protect America's creditworthiness is to enact a timely debt limit increase, which we remain confident Congress will do. The president believes we will resolve this situation in a timely manner and avoid any disruption" in government operations or payments.

Several union groups this week said they have not been privy to any contingency plans in case the debt ceiling is not raised.

"It's almost like nobody believes it's actually going to happen, that this is all political posturing," said Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service employees union. "You know it's not the subject they should be playing politics with. There are plenty of other things they can play with they don't need to put the nation's integrity on the line."

But Sobien said he remains worried about how federal employees will fare in any deal that is achieved.

"It's just inherently unfair that because of spending on two wars and huge tax cuts for hugely wealthy people that we're going to balance budget on the backs of federal employees," he said. "Federal employees are willing to come to the table and make some sacrifices. But it seems like every time something like this happens, they are the scapegoat."

Reporter Emily Yehle contributed.

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