These have been tumultuous times for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest Federal workers union, which represents 700,000 civil servants all over the U.S. and its territories.
After three years of legal battles with the Trump administration over the union's right to exist and weathering the longest government shutdown in history, it closed out the year with big gains from Congress, according to Everett Kelley, AFGE’s national secretary-treasurer, who is serving as its interim president.
Cox Facing Internal Probe
He was elevated to the top post in October pending the completion of an internal investigation into allegations of sexual harassment made against AFGE President J. David Cox.
In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Kelley said AFGE members made significant progress on both wages and benefits in 2019.
“Despite the [Trump] Administration’s proposal to freeze Federal employee pay in both 2019 and 2020, we were able to work with Congress to provide all Federal workers a 1.9-percent pay raise for 2019 and a 3.1-percent increase this year, which is the largest raise in a whole decade,” he said. “We also won approval of the first new benefit for Federal employees in decades, which provides 12 weeks of paid parental leave for birth, adoption or for the adoption placement of a child.”
AFGE also enlisted a bipartisan coalition in Congress to successfully counter the Trump Administration’s efforts to abolish the Office of Personnel Management, which Dr. Kelley believes would have undermined “the integrity and the political independence of the civil service.”
The union also convinced both the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and Republican-led Senate to require Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul to revisit his decision last year to eliminate telecommuting as an option for thousands of SSA workers across the country.
A 39-Year Climb
Dr. Kelley has been a member of AFGE since 1981. He worked at the Anniston Army Depot, which he recently retired from after 30 years. Prior to his election as national vice president, he served as president of Local 1945 from 2002 to 2011.
A native of Goodwater, Alabama, Dr. Kelley enlisted in the U.S. Army and served for three years. After his honorable discharge, he earned a theology degree and went on to get his master’s and doctorate in religious studies at Rushing Springs School of Theology. He has served as the Senior Pastor of St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church for the past 31 years.
The interim AFGE president attributed the union’s recent gains, despite heavy resistance from the White House, to an energized membership that raised the bar for political engagement in the 2018 mid-term elections that saw the Democrats regain the majority in the House, restoring Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.
“AFGE had a big role in that because we had people voting and going out to the polls that hadn’t done it in a while,” he said. “I am from a state where we worked diligently to get Doug Jones elected to the U.S. Senate. We worked with his campaign and although there was also a lot of influence from female voters, it could not have happened without labor.”
Won’t Ignore GOP Reps
But key to AFGE’s success, Dr. Kelley added, was locals’ willingness to endorse Republican candidates for Congress who have pro-worker values. “We do it all the time,” he said. “I am from Alabama and my Congressman is a Republican and we have endorsed him on more than one occasion…It is whoever is concerned about working America and supporting the initiatives we have before us at AFGE.”
Federal unions operate as open shops, in that membership is not a condition of employment, even though they are required to advocate for the entire workforce.
That puts real pressure on union officials and activists to continue to build their locals by recruiting new members while living up to the expectations of co-workers who are already paying dues. For Dr. Kelley, it is all about being of service to the workforce.
“The challenge is that every day we are looking for someone to meet, looking for someone to join our union,” he said. “Every day I made it a habit of asking somebody to join the union.”
Trump a Key Recruiter
That focus on recruiting appears to have paid off. As president of Local 1945, he covered five units with more than 4,500 bargaining-unit employees. Under his leadership, membership more than doubled, going from 1,200 in 2002 to well over 2,600 by 2010.
He continued to stress recruiting and member service when he became District 5 National Vice President, increasing his district roster of dues-paying members from 38,000 to 51,000 in just seven years.
President Trump’s using executive orders to drive AFGE out of the workplace, as well as consistently making pro-management appointments to key Federal agencies and oversight boards, actually helped union recruiting, Mr. Kelley said.
“We continue to grow our union with organizing victories in 2019,” he said. “Scientists and researchers at two USDA research agencies facing relocation and attacks on their work voted overwhelmingly to join AFGE. We also organized whole new units in other agencies, including the Department of Defense and the Social Security Administration.”
Mr. Kelley continued, “The challenge is getting someone to understand the necessity of being a part of a union that is out there fighting for your rights every day, and sometimes you don’t even realize it.”
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