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Leaders of Federal Worker Union Find Many Reasons To Be Merry About 2009

Joe Davidson | The Washington Post via YellowBrix

January 08, 2010

Workers at the Department of Housing and Urban Development know how to party.

The L’Enfant Plaza Hotel ballroom was filled around noon Wednesday with employees ready for a plentiful buffet. The Rooted East band rocked as government workers accustomed to sitting 9 to 5 behind a desk did the Electric Slide in the middle of the day.

Amid all this, it seems unlikely that a top political appointee offering remarks could compete with the holiday festivities.

But the warm reception by members of American Federation of Government Employees, Local 476, for Ron Sims, HUD’s deputy secretary, was telling. Their strong applause was indicative of the friendly labor-management relationship that has developed in the federal government this year.

That’s just one element that made 2009 the best year in a long time to be a rank-and-file federal worker.

“If you’re going to make changes in your organization, you’ve got to have faith in your employees,” Sims said, before heading to the buffet.

He was just one of several HUD political appointees to attend the party, a stark contrast to the relatively poor attendance by Bush administration politicos last year, according to Eddie Eitches, the effervescent president of the local.

“The Obama administration has clearly made a difference through the appointment of competent, committed leaders who sincerely believe in real partnership,” Eitches added.

That sentiment was echoed by William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, who declared 2009 “a fantastic year for the federal workforce.”

For Dougan, “the biggest accomplishment of this year is the repeal of NSPS,” the National Security Personnel System, which Congress is phasing out. This pay-for-performance program was the prime target of union leaders, though few union members are covered by it.

“Having NSPS hanging out there was like a cancer,” Dougan said. “Its presence made it impossible for agency management and labor to heal the wounds left from the previous administration.”

Dougan, like other labor leaders, also praised the labor-management forums that President Obama created by executive order last week. The forums, at the national and agency levels, are designed to foster increased communication between workers and supervisors, with the goal of improving customer service.

But union leaders were not pleased that the order did not direct agencies to bargain with labor over an optional set of issues, including the number and grade of employees assigned to work projects.

“We’ll make the best of it, but my union is not jumping up and down about it,” said John Gage, AFGE’s national president. What made him really happy, he said, was AFGE’s 15,000 new members this year.

A downer for workers was word about the small pay raise, averaging 2 percent, they’ll get next year. “Among the disappointments, I would count the lack of parity in military and civilian pay increases for 2010,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “This is a longtime, and we believe important, tenet of federal pay policy, and we will make every effort to ensure its return in 2011 and beyond.”

Gregory J. Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, pointed to congressional action that allows employees in the Federal Employees Retirement System to credit unused sick leave toward retirement as one of “the many good pieces of legislation that became law.”

From his perch as president and chief executive of the good-government Partnership for Public Service, Max Stier can take a broad view of the federal workplace, and what he saw this year was a new intensity from the top level of the White House.

“One of the more exciting things is the engagement by the Office of Management and Budget on workplace and workforce issues,” Stier said. “You’ve got a set of leaders . . . at OMB who are making these people issues central to their agenda.”

Another Obama appointee, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, gives the administration a B-plus for its efforts to improve federal workplace conditions. One of the things he’s proud of is President Obama’s executive order to facilitate the hiring of veterans by federal agencies. Berry missed his self-imposed year-end deadline to outline plans for overhauling the government’s hiring and recruitment system, a deadline that probably wasn’t realistic for such a big task anyway. He’s “hopeful and optimistic” it will be ready early next year.

Speaking of next year, ’tis the season to be merry and take a break. The Federal Diary will be closed until January. Then it will return to a former home in the Metro section. Look for it there. Enjoy the holiday season.

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