Published: September 22, 2003
John Gage assumes leadership of the biggest federal union — the American Federation of Government Employees — at a precarious time for its members.
Federal employees are in danger of losing some of the job protections they have long enjoyed. The Bush administration is anxious to open hundreds of thousands of federal jobs to private-sector competition, base pay programs upon performance rather than longevity, and give managers more control over the workplace.
But Gage, who was elected to replace Bobby Harnage as national president Aug. 20, can count two early victories. On Sept. 9, the House passed two AFGE-backed measures. One would scrap newly revised rules known as Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76 on how agencies conduct job competitions between federal employees and contractors. The other would guarantee federal employees a 4.1 percent raise in January, nearly double the amount requested by the administration and equal to the proposed raise for military members.
Gage declared victory on those two fronts, but he remains troubled by the Homeland Security Department's efforts to consolidate 22 agencies' personnel and management systems and the Defense Department's push to adopt many of Homeland Security's management methods.
Gage became active in AFGE shortly after joining the government in 1974 as a disability examiner with the Social Security Administration.
He climbed the ranks of AFGE Local 1923 and was elected its president in 1982. Under Gage's leadership, the Baltimore local became the largest of AFGE's 1,100 locals nationwide with more than 8,000 members. In the mid-1980s he also served as national vice president of AFGE's 4th District, which represents employees in Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
Gage talked with Federal Times Staff Writer Tim Kauffman and other reporters Sept. 10 on the top issues facing federal workers. Following are excerpts from the media briefing:
Question: The Homeland Security Department announced on Sept. 2 the creation of a combined border, customs and agriculture inspector without first consulting the unions. If you had been consulted, what would your recommendation have been to improve border protection?
Gage: Well, the devil's always in the details on those things. We've seen the agencies come to specialize and then generalize over a number of years. But these jobs were built the way they were basically because of the complexity of them. There's going to be a lot more secondary checks because the people doing the primary checks just may not be equipped to be able to concentrate and to know everything about that job to make it as efficient as it is now. We're meeting with our employee representatives of those jobs, including the National Treasury Employees Union, who has the customs part, and we're looking at it very closely. Why they did it the way they did, without really talking to us and talking to employees, or even their managers, is just not good business and just not the way to do things.
We know there are a lot of really technical, difficult details and this is just not going to happen with the snap of a finger. We think it could have been done more deliberately and certainly more inclusively.
Q: Do you think the lack of consultation with the unions on the border issue is indicative of the way everything's being handled within the department?
Gage: There's just been a cutoff in many departments from discussions with employee representatives and employees themselves. It really is a radical change over a lot of the initiatives to inspire teamwork at federal work sites. A lot of managers I know call me and complain that they simply don't have any information on what's going on in their agencies, and many of the decisions are being done by the Office of Management and Budget, and that OMB is not really allowing managers of agencies to manage.
Q: Now that some lawmakers are trying to throw out the new OMB Circular A-76, what is the next step on making contracting out work?
Gage: First of all, the quota deal has to go, and the internal push on these agencies to contract out simply to meet a number we don't think is really a good way to do things. Just some of the inequities: . . . Every five years federal employees would have their jobs back up for review, yet once a contractor got a job or got a function of government, they have it for life. Deciding competitions on the basis of best value — the administration says this will help federal employees because quality will have to be considered. The old A-76 does consider quality. It's not just the cheapest. You have to perform in the job.
We're going to continue very loudly talking about accountability and we want the public to know how much money is going into this contracting out and that we want the quality of the jobs, the contractors, measured at least as much as they're measuring the inside government jobs done by federal employees.
Q: What's your take on the administration's proposed human capital performance fund?
Gage: Awarding good workers is something we're very much in favor of, but it's hard not to imagine with this administration's attitude that the performance fund is just a symbol of giving hard-working employees some recognition — but really the whole deal is to reduce overall salary. [Deciding] . . . who's going to get awards and who's going to get pay for performance adds so much paperwork and so much of a productivity loss with that type of system that it's really not worth the money.
Any money to award federal employees, good workers, we're in favor of. But if you look at it, many of our workers are very good. It's an excellent work force. . . . Our members, they certainly don't like somebody in the work site who's not pulling their weight and not contributing their fair share. We hear it all the time. But to say you're going to blow up the system to try to go after a poor performer here and there and subject all the people who are working hard and doing a good job to this kind of adversarial type of work-site system is overkill.
It won't work, and I really hope those who are pushing that type of a system will take another look at the past experience of those types of systems.
Q: You have a big role to play in the development of a new personnel system for Homeland Security. What are the key things you support and are going to push for?
Gage: When an action is taken against an employee and the employee doesn't have the right to go to an independent arbitrator under a union contract to test it, that's a big deal. If you can only complain or appeal something to the manager who took the action, that's a bit of a setup. So we will insist that there is a third party that can review some actions that are taken against employees, and that's not just on discipline. That's on pay, overtime and a number of basic employee rights.
We also would like to have our bargaining rights. We think federal employees and any employee works better when there is a contract of work rules that is laid out ahead of time and is negotiated fairly.
Q: You declared a victory on the inclusion of a higher raise for federal employees [in the House Transportation, Treasury and independent agencies appropriations bill]. But agencies budgeted about half of the amount that Congress is trying to push through so the higher raise could have a significant impact on their operations, especially if they take away money for training and other resources to fund the raise. Is that a concern?
Gage: We certainly recognize that agencies, especially domestic agencies, are being squeezed terribly. Veterans Affairs, Social Security, Medicare — they're really being squeezed and the pay raise won't help that, although these agencies have been very creative. This is not a new thing. Agencies have been very creative in keeping enough staff to get the job done and then paying out this benefit, this pay raise, but that's just a matter of time. Many of the agencies are getting down to the bone. For instance, if they have to be laying off people in order to give the others a pay raise, then obviously it's gone too far and these agencies are just not properly funded.