Launching ‘Big Enough to Win’ Campaign, AFGE Chief Cox Sets Growth Goal, Vows Union Go on Offense

WASHINGTON (PAI)—Vowing to make the American Federation of Government Employees “big enough to win” – the credo of its legislative conference – union President J. David Cox set an ambitious growth goal for AFGE’s next five years, while declaring his union will now play offense, not defense, against politically inspired cuts in federal workers’ pay and benefits.

In a stem-winding Feb. 10 speech to delegates, Cox said his union, which now has almost 285,000 members, “has got to organize, organize, organize.  We need to be (up to a total of) 600,000 members in the next five years.  And this is not a pipedream!

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AFGE PRESIDENT J. DAVID COX tells his union’s legislative conference that the union has a goal of reaching 600,000 members within five years. It has about 285,000 now. Photo by Mark Gruenberg of TNG-CWA Local 32035 for PAI Photo Service.

In a later interview with reporters, Cox added that there are many unorganized civilian agencies, especially in the Defense Department.  But he noted that just to keep its membership at present levels, AFGE must sign up 40,000 new members yearly.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has outsourced so many jobs to private contractors that “there are fewer federal people working for the federal government now than there were under President Eisenhower” when he was a kid, Cox said.

AFGE’s organizing targets would come from the union-constructed database of unorganized units, in Defense, Veterans Affairs and elsewhere.  “We’ll crank them up with rallies and demonstrations” on issues important to workers, federal and non-federal, along with worker-to-worker contact through lunch-and-learn meetings and enlisting the aid of AFL-CIO state federations and local labor councils, he said.

And in those contacts, AFGE will push not only the wins it achieved in the past several months – most of them defensive, such as finally getting federal workers a 1% raise after a 3-year wage freeze – but also the “offense” it plans for 2014 and beyond.

That includes rolling back the rest of sequestration, eliminating a third, lowest tier of pensions for new hires, and informing all workers, not just union members, about lawmakers who talk a good game for federal workers, then cut and run during votes.

“I love members of Congress who say ‘I love veterans’ and who then vote against the VA,” deadpanned Cox, a longtime Veterans Affairs Department nurse before becoming AFGE president.  “And I love those who say ‘I love corrections officers’ and then vote against even arming them” in the dangerous federal prison environment.

The union already has achieved one goal, he said: Cox said he spoke personally with Democratic President Barack Obama about a proposal in last year’s Obama budget blueprint to have federal workers pay another $20 billion in contributions to their pensions – contributions that do not result in later higher pension payments.

“I spoke to the president about this, and he committed that the upcoming budget in March will not include that money,” Cox said.  “But I’m just guessing the House Republican budget will once again include a big hit against federal employees.”

AFGE’s second immediate goal is to reverse a decision lawmakers enacted earlier this year, cutting future cost-of-living increases for federal retirees.  To help stem red ink, solons cut the COLAs – but did not eliminate them – for future civilian and defense retirees.

A subsequent uproar has led lawmakers to advocate reversing the cut for the defense workers, but there’s been no similar outcry about the cut the federal retirees would suffer.  So Cox raised it with House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who promised to “try like hell to push an amendment for a rollback” of the COLA cut.

“I’m hearing from agency after agency that this” COLA cut “is causing a problem in new hiring” to replace the thousands of federal workers – the baby boomers – who will retire in the next few years, Cox added.

Though Cox promised to take the union on the offense on Capitol Hill, speeches to delegates by top lawmakers showed a Congress still consumed by budget battles.

Two of the three who spoke, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Thomas Carper, D-Del., and influential non-Tea Party conservative Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., whose subcommittee helps decide where federal money goes, emphasized cutting the federal deficit.  They took different routes to do so.

“Over half of our spending pie is entitlements,” Carper said.  “It’s growing.  Debt is 5%-10%.  It’s growing, too.  The rest is appropriations bills” to keep the government going, including federal pay and benefits, said Carper, whose panel handles the issues.

“But half of those are defense and the other half is everything else.  Some folks want to eliminate that last 20%, but it still wouldn’t close the deficit,” he said, referring to GOP Tea Partyites.  His solution: “Eliminate some tax expenditures – the ones that make the least sense,” like a loophole that gives hedge fund managers low tax rates.

Cole disagreed on the solution.  “The real challenge is to deal across the aisle with these entitlement programs.  We can do it more efficiently, but everybody’s going to have to give up something they don’t want to,” he said.


By Mark Gruenberg

PAI Staff Writer