As the New Year begins, imagine that this is how your 2018 ended. You work at a company where the CEO and the management team are notoriously corrupt. They began the year by taking on a $150 million in new debt for the purpose of rewarding themselves and their shareholders with a massive stock buyback. But as the holidays approached, the big boss declares about a third of all the workers will be furloughed or required to work without pay. Then--just in time for Christmas—the CEO announces the 2 percent raise planned for 2019 will be cancelled. The company, he complains, can’t afford the $25 million-dollar cost.
As it turns out, that hypothetical is actually real. Just multiply the dollar figures by 1,000 and replace “CEO” with “President Donald Trump.” The result is the “happy holidays” experienced by the 2.2 million employees of the federal government.
Of course, this was no surprise attack on the Americans who do the work of the people’s government. The Republican war on the 22.3 million public sector employees of federal, state and local governments has been underway for years. And the twin goals of that GOP assault—to demonize government itself while fatally wounding the last bastion of American union power--have never changed.
The context for the current GOP punishment of public sector workers is Trump’s unnecessary government shutdown. (Unnecessary, that is, because the Senate passed a bill featuring $1.3 billion in border security funding with Trump’s blessing on the Wednesday before Christmas, only to have Trump change his mind within 24 hours. And a year ago, Trump and Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed to a deal funding the President’s border wall in exchange for a resolution of the fate of the 800,000 “Dreamers.” Chief of staff John Kelly then blew up the deal.) Of the nation’s 2.2 million civilian workers (excluding 600,000 in the postal service), some 340,000 federal employees have now been furloughed, while an additional 500,000 are now working without pay.
The GOP’s best and brightest greeted those numbers by essentially telling America’s public servants to drop dead.
When a reporter asked about Transportation Security Administration and Border Patrol agents who would be required to continue working on Christmas without getting a paycheck, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) responded, “It’s actually part of what you do when you sign up for any public service position.” Congressman Scott Perry (R-PA) took the derision up a notch, sneering:
“Who’s living that they’re not going to make it to the next paycheck?”
As it turns out, a lot of federal employees, like the rest of the American workforce, live paycheck-to-paychecks. Just weeks after being warned not to discuss Trump “resistance” at work, many federal employees began sharing their #ShutdownStories of the hardships they now endure:
Many declined to identify themselves publicly, so their stories could not be confirmed. Yet their tales of hardship spread widely. One man said he became homeless; he broke his lease in anticipation of moving to another state to train for a new federal job — and the training was canceled. Another described having to terminate a family member’s caregiver as funds dwindled. Several talked of forgoing or returning Christmas gifts.
That talk isn’t merely anecdotal. A survey of 1,500 union members in December found that “about 85 percent said they have limited holiday season spending or are planning to do so because of uncertainty about income.”
Unable to dispatch billions of dollars to build the border wall his base demands, Donald Trump instead dispatched a flurry of baseless talking points. On Christmas Day, the occupant of the Oval Office addressed those hundreds of thousands of federal employees going without pay:
“Many of those workers have said to me, communicated, 'stay out until you get the funding for the wall.’”
Two days after providing no evidence for that bogus claim, President Trump took to Twitter to deliver another one:
Do the Dems realize that most of the people not getting paid are Democrats?
As usual, Trump was wrong. It’s not just that Washington DC, Maryland and Northern Virginia do not account for all federal workers. Hundreds of thousands (roughly 80 percent) are distributed around the country and not just in the biggest states like California, Texas and New York. As a percentage of their state workforces, some of the reddest states have the highest shares of Uncle Sam’s employees. Just as important, many of the metro areas in which federal salaries make up the biggest slices of all civilian employee earnings are in places like New Bern, North Carolina, Warner Robbins, Georgia and Huntsville, Alabama.
But just as important as Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner’s larger point that “federal employees don’t go to work wearing red or blue jerseys; they’re public servants” is this: the workers themselves debunked Trump’s ridiculous sound bite. As Government Executive reported on December 27:
In a 2016 Government Executive survey, 28 percent of federal employees identified themselves as Democrats, and 26 percent said they were Republicans. But an even greater percentage, 35 percent, identified as independents. And of those in the last category, 42 percent said they leaned Republican, while only 31 percent said they leaned Democratic.
On New Year’s Eve, a new survey from Government Exec found that “Federal Employees Overwhelmingly Oppose Shutdown, Only 30 Percent Support Wall.”
About 71 percent of federal workers oppose the shutdown—which crawled into its 10th day on Monday—according to a new survey by Government Business Council and GovExec.com, while 22 percent support it. Nine in 10 of those supporting the shutdown do so because they support Trump’s fight for wall funding, though a small handful feel so opposed to the wall that they want agencies to close in order to block the wall from being built.
With even 35 percent of those federal workers who support building the southern border wall opposing the shutdown as a tactic to secure it, it’s no wonder one of the largest federal employee unions filed a lawsuit to halt the Trump administration’s work-without-pay policy. The president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents border patrol and TSA agents among other workers, explained:
"Our members put their lives on the line to keep our country safe. Requiring them to work without pay is nothing short of inhumane."
But Trump’s message never had anything to do with his fidelity to the truth, but to his hardline supporters. And by marking federal employees as “Democrats,” the President of the United States was signaling the MAGA crowd that public servants, like immigrants, minorities and Muslims, were a target for their scorn.
Consider the juxtaposition of Donald Trump’s statements to military and civilian workers just days apart. On December 26, Trump lied to cheering American servicemen and women in Iraq about the supposedly massive 10 percent pay raise he had secured for them:
“You just got one of the biggest pay raises you’ve ever received ... You haven’t gotten one in more than 10 years — more than 10 years. And we got you a big one. I got you a big one. I got you a big one.”
But while 1.3 million military personnel did receive a 2.6 percent pay raise, on December 29 informed civilian workers they would be getting none at all for the third time since 2010. The executive order confirmed Trump’s warnings from February and August 2018 that he would oppose the planned 2.1 percent increase and $25 billion in adjustments for “locality pay.” When the White House is boasting of rising wages and claiming (wrongly) that “we have the best economy we've ever had, in the history of our country,” just why would Donald Trump feel this move is necessary?
We must maintain efforts to put our Nation on a fiscally sustainable course, and Federal agency budgets cannot sustain such increases…
The cost of employing the Federal workforce is significant. In light of our Nation’s fiscal situation, Federal employee pay must be performance-based, and aligned strategically toward recruiting, retaining, and rewarding high-performing Federal employees and those with critical skill sets. Across-the-board pay increases and locality pay increases, in particular, have long-term fixed costs, yet fail to address existing pay disparities or target mission critical recruitment and retention goals.
As President Richard Thissen of National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) put it last year,
“This budget singles out federal workers by implementing a pay freeze, which is perplexing given the president’s continual praise of the strong economy and rising wage growth. Denying a modest pay raise during a time of economic prosperity demonstrates disdain for federal workers and needlessly punishes middle-class households.”
Disdain, indeed. After all, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that in fiscal year 2016 federal spending on total civilian employee compensation was $215 billion. Even if that figure was now, say, $250 billion, a two percent increase would only add $5 billion to Uncle Sam’s $4.4 trillion budget. Adding in the estimated $25 billion for regional “locality” adjustments for higher cost of living areas around the country and the total tab is additional spending is around $30 billion. And that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the GOP’s Tax Cuts and Job Act which starting in 2018 will drain an estimated $1.5 trillion from the United States Treasury over the next decade. And that tax cut windfall for the wealthy will deliver the vast majority of its benefits to the most affluent people in the United States.
And to be sure, federal employees are not among those most affluent people. Last April, the Federal Salary Council found “federal employee salaries on average lag behind those of similar private-sector workers by just under 32 percent.” As the Washington Post explained:
The council, consisting of unions representing federal employees and nongovernmental pay experts, oversees the pay system for most white-collar employees below the executive level, the General Schedule. Under a 1990 law, its findings are passed to a higher-level body of administration officials, who in turn make recommendations to the White House for specific raises for 44 city zones and a single figure for all areas outside those zones.
Now, these conclusions are hotly contested. In its 2017 analysis, the Post noted, “t Congressional Budget Office concluded that federal employees overall earn 3 percent more on average but that there are large differences by educational level: from a 34 percent advantage for federal workers with a high school education or less to a 24 percent shortfall for those with a professional degree or doctorate.” (These comparisons include total compensation combining both salary and benefits.) Unsurprisingly, conservative groups find the reverse of the Federal Salary Council, and then claim government workers far out-earn their private sector counterparts.
And that’s no surprise because Republicans have been trying to crush federal employees and their unions for years.
Consider the run up to the 2012 presidential election. In the fall of 2010, Jonathan Cohn explained in The New Republic “Why Public Employees are the New Welfare Queens.” Rush Limbaugh claimed that public sector employees are "freeloaders" and then-Indiana Governor and GOP White House hopeful Mitch Daniels lamented that they are a "new privileged class in America.” By early 2011, Sarah Palin was denouncing "unionized public employees [who] are making more money, receiving more generous benefits, and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt.” Minnesota Governor and soon-to-be failed Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled, “Government Unions vs. Taxpayers” in which he claimed:
The rise of government unions has been like a silent coup, an inside job engineered by self-interested politicians and fueled by campaign contributions.
"You have public employees making more than their private-sector counterparts,” Pawlenty charged on Fox News, “They used to be under-benefited and underpaid. Now they're both over-benefited and overpaid...it needs to stop."
Now, none of this was true. While there may have been some dispute about the extent of the gap between federal workers and their private sector counterparts, the data on state and local government was overwhelming. Public employees, especially in the South, were under-compensated relative to their private sector analogs at every level of income and educational attainment. Nevertheless, the Republican war on government workers and their unions took on other forms. Consider, for example, the "2 to 1" federal employee advantage sound bite then dominating the U.S media:
"The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year. The average private employee makes $60,000 a year." (Rand Paul)
"It's gotten to a point where the average federal worker makes twice as much as the average private sector worker." (John Boehner)
"Federal employees receive an average of $123,049 annually in pay and benefits, twice the average of the private sector." (Tim Pawlenty)
But as with state and local governments, this line of attack is an apples-to-oranges comparison at best and an outright deception at worst. As FactCheck pointed out:
The analysis is based on data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and crudely done by dividing total compensation (salary and benefits) by the number of current federal civilian employees. Comparing such averages is quite misleading, for two reasons:
First, BEA says the figure is inflated by including compensation that is actually paid to benefit retirees, not just for current workers. The figure is at least several thousand dollars too high, by our calculations.
Second, the average federal civilian worker is better educated, more experienced and more likely to have management or professional responsibilities than the average private worker.
Mitt Romney, the eventual 2012 GOP nominee, got into the act as well. Regurgitating talking points from the right-wing Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, Romney declared that "average government workers are now making $30,000 a year more than the average private-sector worker." And in the plan to cut federal spending he unveiled last week, Romney took aim at Uncle Sam's workforce:
Align Federal Employee Compensation With The Private Sector -- Savings: $47 Billion. Federal compensation exceeds private sector levels by as much as 30 to 40 percent when benefits are taken into account. This must be corrected.
In September 2011, Romney proclaimed himself a both a champion and a member of the middle class when he said he sought to help “the great middle class — the 80 to 90 percent of us in this country.” That November, just days after the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that federal employees made 26 percent less than those comparable workers in the private sector, the $250 million man protested:
“The taxpayers shouldn’t have to have money taken out of their pay checks to pay people in government who are our servants who are making a lot more money than we are.”
Of course, it wasn’t true then and it’s not true now. But what is true is that the federal civilian employees have received pay hikes less than or equal to American military personnel every year this century. Thanks to Congressional Republicans, General Schedule workers got no raises for 2011, 2012 and 2013. Since 2010, federal pay increases exceeded the inflation rate in only three years.
But what is true is that while private sector union membership and political power has plummeted, public sector unions like AFSCME, SEIU, NEA and others combined still represent 34.4 percent of government workers. It is their remaining political power, usually deployed on behalf of Democratic candidates and progressive causes, that Republicans like Donald Trump, Scott Walker and John Kasich have sought to crush. In executive orders, legislatures, state ballot measures and in state and federal courthouses, the GOP has worked without let up to limit the ability of public sector unions to retain members and collect dues. The goal is to leave the last redoubt of union power broken and broke, no match for the unlimited resources for corporate power.
For their part, Democrats are hoping to restore raises for federal workers in 2019 as part of their proposal to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year. While the House did not address the issue of the recommended 2 percent hike last year, the Senate agreed to a 1.9 percent boost, though it never came to the floor for a vote. But with his announce freezes on federal hiring and pay, Donald Trump wants to kick two million federal workers while they are down. Or more accurately, shut down. For his 150,000 members across 33 federal agencies and departments, Tony Reardon of the National Treasury Employees Union said, Trump’s freeze is a “slap in the face.”
It’s actually much worse than that. Trump and his Republican allies want it to be another nail in the coffin for unions.