Federal-employee unions have hailed the re-election of President Barack Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
But despite the excitement, union leaders are tempering their expectations for a second term.
Part of that sentiment reflects the mixed bag of accomplishments and setbacks of Obama’s first term: While unions sensed an ally in Obama, he ended up supporting a two-year freeze on federal-employee pay.
Still, unions are relishing the victory.
J. David Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, described his mood as “cloud nine and a little higher,” in an interview on Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.
“President Obama certainly understands the role of unions in our country and how you have sound labor-management relationships,” Cox said. He contrasted the President with Romney, who had expressed skepticism of unions and large government during the campaign.
Colleen Kelley, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union, told In Depth with Francis Rose Obama’s re-election was good news for federal employees “who got a chance to have their voices heard about who would be making the decisions about them and their working lives in the next four years.”
Budget issues still threaten
But lingering issues, such as how to reduce the federal budget deficit and the looming “fiscal cliff“, will continue to hang over Congress and federal agencies.
Kelley said she’s looking to the lame-duck Congress to come up with an alternative to the across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration, that are set to go into effect in January.
“NTEU’s interest is in the sequestration issue being settled but not on the backs of federal employees,” she said.
Cox said he is opposed to including federal-employee pay and benefits on the table in further deficit-reduction negotiations.
“Do not ask them to make a larger contribution to their retirement fund, which is already fully funded,” he said. Asking employees to pay more into retirement would be “nothing but a pay cut,” he added.
But it’s not just federal workers’ pay and benefits that are on the line in the deficit-reduction talks, Kelley said, citing the fear of dwindling agency budgets.
“Most of the agencies are having trouble being able to deliver on the critical missions for their agencies,” she said. For example, the IRS, which her union represents, received millions less in funding than it requested last fiscal year, Kelley said, constraining its ability to collect the revenue that supports many of the federal government’s operations.
Unions want to play expanded role
Both Kelley and Cox said they wanted to play expanded roles in resolving the budget crunch and other fed-specific issues.
In particular, NTEU wants a seat at the table if hard decisions have to be made regarding agency funding, Kelley said.
“I would expect that NTEU would be part of those conversations — that we wouldn’t be told about the conclusion after the fact, that they would want our input,” she said.
The engagement with unions could come through the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, a conglomeration of union leaders and agency managers that began under the Clinton administration but was disbanded under President George W. Bush. Obama revived the council in 2009.
“I like the era of partnership that we had in the Clinton administration,” Cox said. “And I would certainly welcome those type of opportunities again for the unions and management to work collectively to improve the services to the American public … I think the message is out there clearly.”
Kelley said she doesn’t expect major changes in the way the boards operate. “But I believe we will stay on track to continue to enhance those conversations and to have them be more substantive than they are today.”
Francis Rose is the host of In Depth, which airs weekdays from 4-7 p.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC metro area and online everywhere. Francis has covered all three branches of the federal government as a broadcast journalist since 1998. He joined Federal News Radio in 2006 as the producer and news anchor of the station’s morning drive program, the Federal Drive. He launched In Depth in 2008 as a daily show focused on connecting federal executives to the information they need to do their jobs better.