The clamor of a thousand American Federation of Government Employee officials from across the country chanting, “Stand Up! Rise Up!” rocked the ballroom of the Washington Hyatt Regency at the union’s annual gathering Feb. 10 in the heart of the nation’s capital.
The conference occurred after the nation’s largest union, representing 700,000 civil servants, managed to post significant gains despite efforts by President Trump to force the AFGE out of the Federal workplace with a series of executive orders and unilateral agency actions.
Got GOP to Buck Trump
In interviews, union officials credited a bipartisan congressional strategy with helping them to outflank Mr. Trump within his own party, and in the process win a 1.9-percent wage increase in 2019, a 3.1-percent raise for the current year and 12 weeks of paid parental leave.
That both-sides-of-the-aisle support was on display, with the attendees hearing pro-union speeches from Democrats including U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Ca.), and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) as well as from Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (Me.), and Reps. Tom Cole (Okla.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.)
Dr. Everett Kelley, AFGE’s national secretary-treasurer and interim president since last fall after sexual harassment allegations sidelined AFGE President J. David Cox, was the keynote speaker. He was in his Baptist preacher mode with a rousing address that had those gathered standing and cheering.
‘Animate Nation’s Conscience’
“Sisters and brothers, we gather here today in solidarity, in dedication and devotion, in joyfulness of spirit,” he bellowed. “We are here to instigate what the great John Lewis calls ‘good trouble’ … to animate the nation’s conscience … and to activate all good Americans who believe in government, of, by and for the American people!”
Mr. Kelley recapped the union’s bruising battle with the Trump White House.
“When we met one year ago, the threats we faced looked dire,” he said. “The prospects ahead seemed bleak. The 35-day government shutdown had just ended. We were under relentless, unprecedented attack, not only against our members’ wages, benefits and rights, but against our very right to exist.”
He continued, “How did we respond to these assaults? Did we cower in fear? Did we put our heads in the sand? Did we wallow in self-pity? Did we fall prey to division? Did we throw up our hands in surrender? That’s right: the answer is no. No. No. No. And no. Instead, we strengthened our bonds of solidarity. We joined together to fight back.”
Despite those victories, the audience was told that the Trump Administration was persisting in its efforts to roll back collective bargaining, with a White House memo issued Jan. 29 that asserted the Secretary of Defense had the power to override bargaining if it is “incompatible” with the Pentagon’s “national security mission.”
‘Fight on Every Front’
“Just this weekend, we learned their latest plan to strip collective bargaining from the hardworking Americans who serve our nation at the Department of Defense,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. “We will fight this in the courts, we will fight this in Congress. We will fight this on every front and with every fiber of our being and I promise you we will be here long after we send Donald Trump back to his gold-plated mansion.”
He reminded the audience, which was now on its feet, of President Kennedy’s establishing Federal workers’ right to collective bargaining with an executive order in 1962.
“You see, John F. Kennedy understood that collective bargaining was an exercise of freedom,” he said. “He believed that Federal employee unions were good for our nation and yet they were also good for our national security. Now, Donald Trump wants to retreat from generations of common-sense policy for no reason other than he doesn’t like us. He doesn’t like us. He doesn’t like anybody who dares to stand up and represent people.”
In her remarks, Ms. Pelosi praised the AFGE and the Federal workforce, which she noted included hundreds of thousands of military veterans.
‘Out to Privatize Everything’
“AFGE is in the forefront to protect not just your jobs but what you do, and we are up against a crowd that just doesn’t believe in the public sector,” she said. “So they are not going after you personally, only. They are going after what you do. What they want to do is privatize everything so that they can make money off of it and not have to honor diversity, any commitments to diversify or fairness in the workplace.”
She continued, “Here’s the deal—they are trying to roll back all the things instituted a hundred years ago. And the fact is our democracy has as its backbone a strong middle class, and the middle class has a union label on it.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten compared AFGE’s “existential threat” from the Trump administration to the bitter political battle that Teachers unions found themselves embroiled in several years ago.
‘Gives Voice and Power’
“Ten years ago, you saw in this town and throughout the country the so-called reformers thinking they were going to change the public-education system by defiling, denigrating, dismissing, defunding and demoralizing educators and public schools,” she said.
But, Ms. Weingarten noted, Teacher unions across the country reclaimed the narrative.
“It was not one thing. It wasn’t a magic wand. It wasn’t a pot of gold. It was that our members and our communities started standing together to fight for what children needed, fight for what communities needed.”
As a result, she asserted, “The public now has given a higher rating for unions by 20 or 30 points than they do Donald Trump, by the way” because “they believe the union is the vehicle for voice and power to get children what they need and to get nurses what they need.”
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