Under stress, unions hook new members

By Kimberly Palmer

Carl Goldman didn't bother to sugarcoat his message. He told 30 federal employees at a recent meeting that he wasn't going to be able to do a good job representing them if more of them didn't join the union. Only four were members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which had earned the right to represent them.

Fourteen of those assembled joined on the spot. Goldman, the executive director of AFSCME Council 26, said anxiety over job security under the Bush administration helped reel them in. "Federal employees that we deal with are not really sure what will come next," he said.

Goldman's experience mirrors national growth in union membership, despite- - or perhaps because of--looming obstacles ahead. In the coming months, the Defense and Homeland Security departments are expected to announce personnel reforms that may limit collective bargaining and replace traditional pay schedules with performance-based compensation. At the same time, President Bush is pushing agencies to hold more job competitions between federal workers and the private sector.

Under these looming threats to their power, union leaders have signed up new members at meetings and through e-mail solicitation and personal appeals. Between 2001 and 2003, the latest year for which data are available, the number of dues-paying American Federation of Government Employees members increased by almost 3 percent, and National Treasury Employees Union membership went up by 4.5 percent, according to Labor Department records. That's about twice the rate of the growth of the civilian federal workforce.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said workers who would not have considered becoming union members in the past are now joining up because they "see what it is they're up against."

"People see the handwriting on the wall," said Michael Gravinese, legislative coordinator for AFGE Local 3509, which represents Social Security Administration employees in Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas. Fear of job loss, he said, has helped drive his local's membership up to 800 from 645 at the end of 2002.

Gravinese called the Bush administration the most anti-union in history. Even though more federal jobs were lost under the Clinton administration, it somehow felt less malicious, he said. During Clinton's second term, the number of federal employees dropped by almost 1 percent, while the Bush administration has seen a 1.5 percent increase in civilian federal employees, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

In an interview with Government Executive, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said it was "ironic" that the Bush administration has witnessed an increase in federal employment. "This administration is hostile to the right of employees to organize," he said, adding that he'd like more federal employees to join unions.

Membership rolls do not appear to be affected by Sen. John Kerry's loss in the November presidential election. NTEU and AFGE officially endorsed Kerry, although about 40 percent of all union members voted for George Bush, according to exit pills.