Opinion: A Letter to AFGE President David Cox

Special Note: We urge AFGE Union members to send this post to AFGE President David Cox out of respect to Mr. Cox.  Mr. Cox appears to be a sincere and talented guy by every account.  The few times I personally met him, he was very affable and clearly devoted. But he has surrounded himself with non-critical and non-strategic thinkers and appears constrained by such limitations.

20130225-Informed-Fed-Logo_150The consortium at InformedFed.com is comprised of experts with years of academic and practical experience in the area of industrial relations, labor studies, and personnel law with special emphasis in the federal sector.  While we may represent managers and senior agency executives now, many of us were union members once, and probably would still be, given the opportunity.  Many of us also served the union in many official capacities for many years and some of us consult with unions as clients to this day. And, we all commonly believe in the intended purpose of the union.  And, this is why we are compelled to write this article.

The Dead Wrong Approach

AFGE is taking the COMPLETELY WRONG APPROACH in battling the federal employee Furlough issue.CBP / Border Patrol Sponsored Race Car
Notice, we did not say Sequestration; we said, Furlough.  Seemingly, the two are related.  However, that is only seemingly.  In reality, they are only related by agency choice in that an agency, as some agencies have shown, can choose to not furlough its employees and elect to find budgetary savings through other means.  For example, an agency can elect to not sponsor NASCAR (see right) and instead pay its employees. In absolute layman terms, no agency is required to furlough any employee-it chooses to do so.

AFGE chose to oppose the entire Sequester matter and not just the agency election to furlough employees.  This is a significant error and manifestation of a tactic representing long-held traditional response paradigms of the union.  Instead of narrowly defining the issue directly affecting its constituency and focusing all its resources in that area, AFGE elected a “broad brush” approach screaming, and we quote,

“Sequestration is a nasty disease that will destroy and kill this country and its economy and all working Americans.”

That is an exact quote from AFGE President David Cox, March 13, 2013 at an AFGE Press Conference at the National Press Club (40 seconds into video, see video by clicking here). Now, does anyone actually believe what Mr. Cox said?  Will Sequestration kill our country and all working Americans, or even our economy?  We don’t think so either.  And, that’s our point. The credibility and impact of the press conference was undermined through such an incredulous opening claim.  Immediately following Mr. Cox was a host of other union representatives speaking about the impact of furloughs or overtime reductions on the mission and employees.  However, their message was muted by the opening incredulous claim.

The Right Approach

In consultation with some local federal unions, consultants at InformedFed.com strongly advised union leaders to separate the issue of furlough from sequester when communicating with members to provide a more effective, agreeable, and understandable message. The Sequestration matter is far too complicated and light years beyond the scope of influence of any union, public or private. Even if you could reasonably fight against the entire Sequestration matter, why would you?  The task is daunting and would require such an expenditure of resources and political capital, a union would be left weakened after the battle, even if successful; too weakened to defend against the next GOP onslaught against the federal employee, called the Ryan Budget Plan.  If the President of the United States has been unable to influence the outcome of sequestration, what makes any union think it can?

The key for any federal union, local or national level, is to focus on preserving and advancing the pay and benefits of its members.  It’s a fundamental principle   It is an analogous story to a sinking ship.  Is it smarter to get people off a half sunk ship immediately to save them or is it smarter to make them wait while you try to re-float the sinking ship, with the people still on it, in order to save the people. As with most Americans, federal employees could not care less about depleted agency budgets as long as their pay and benefits are preserved.  This value was forged after years of abuse and denigration at the hands of Congress.  It’s effectively a matter of personal survival at this point for federal employees.  And that is the key for all federal unions and where their greatest scope of influence exists (internally and externally), and something most Americans could support;

Requiring agencies to find cost savings through means other than employee furlough

This argument is easily advanced, uncomplicated, most accepted by the American people, generates compassion and understanding, and is easy for Congress or the President to effect through legislation or regulation.  This argument is within the scope of union influence.  Whereas many federal employees actually support the sequester based on out of control spending by agencies, no federal employee, or other taxpayer, believes they should be made to pay for an agency manager’s poor decision to spend agency money on NASCAR sponsorship (CBP/OBP), 17,000 IPhones (CBP/ICE),  failed SBInet (DHS-got the idea from SKYnet in the movie Terminator 2), or lavish conferences.  It’s syllogistic logic in a sense.  It’s also a common interest among all stakeholders: employees, managers, elected officials, and the public.

What Won’t Work For Sure

AFGE’s idea of “Taking our Message to the Streets” in a “National Day of Action” scheduled for March 20 is already dead on arrival if not laughable.  It represents another manifestation of action plans from a bygone era.  It’s reminiscent of the good ole’ days of American Labor rallies………over 60 years ago.  Come on AFGE, time to throw out the old George Meany and Samuel Gomper’s handbooks (yes, this author has academically studied the entire American Labor Movement).  Times have changed.  Even if every AFGE member (289,000 based on AFGE 2011 DOL LM-2 report) decided to show up on March 20th, more people would probably attend a free last minute unannounced U2 concert in Central Park on a nice day.  Maybe you should have called Bono for help.  Hell, AFGE only has 2,400 Twitter followers and clicking a Follow button is a lot easier than showing up to a rally.  Either way, whoever suggested this idea to Mr. Cox should be fired, or at least placed on a Performance Improvement Plan.  What’s the next suggestion? Handing out flyers in supermarket parking lots?  How about yelling “Scab!” during the rallies or bringing in the infamous Rat.

What’s at Stake

As a direct result of the significant adverse impact to the personal finances of federal employees, the Furlough will potentially impact AFGE’s ability to “organize,” which is code word for attracting and retaining dues paying members.  After all, when the union is obligated, by law, to represent you in the workplace, whether you pay dues or not, membership dues would be considered discretionary spending by most.  This is especially true if it comes down to buying new school clothes for little Bobby and Sarah or paying your union dues. In fact, the morning Starbuck’s coffee habit would likely win out over union dues. It’s sad but true.

AFGE, and other federal unions, stand to see a major decline in membership if union leaders cannot evolve. And quite frankly, watching AFGE’s response to this devastating crisis affecting federal employees, who have become victims at this point, is like watching a History channel documentary on the beginning of the  American Labor Movement.  It’s not intended to be the battle plan for today’s unions.

Good luck AFGE and all federal unions.  Everyone is rooting for you.  It’s just time for you to grow up and find some strategic thinkers.