J. David Cox, new president of the American Federation of Government Employees, already has faced the president's extension of the hated pay freeze, the embarrassing indictment of the former president of AFGE's Border Patrol council, and an accelerating presidential election campaign that has made federal employees and their pay a key issue. (Staff)
In his first few days as the new president of the American Federation of Government Employees, J. David Cox faced the president’s extension of the hated pay freeze, the embarrassing indictment of the former president of AFGE’s Border Patrol council, and an accelerating presidential election campaign that has made federal employees and their pay a key issue.
“This first week has sort of been a baptism by fire,” Cox said in an Aug. 23 interview with Federal Times at his office in Washington.
But while feds and unions have taken their knocks in recent years, Cox said he doesn’t think unions’ influence is waning. In addition to focusing on this fall’s election, Cox plans to work on increasing AFGE’s membership and clout by reaching out to the public, one person at a time.
“I want this union to become a household word,” Cox said. “I don’t want to have to say, ‘AFGE — we’re the government employee union.’ If I say ‘Teamster,’ the world knows who Teamsters are.”
Cox said that after years of conservatives denigrating federal employees as overpaid, do-nothing bureaucrats, unions have to become more vocal about all the good federal employees do.
“We do great things,” Cox said. “I don’t know that we blow that horn enough. I didn’t hesitate when I ate breakfast this morning because our members made sure that it was safe food I was eating. Our people do all of that.”
Cox also shared his thoughts on what a Mitt Romney presidency might mean for federal employees, the indictment of former National Border Patrol Council President TJ Bonner, the failures of the Obama administration’s partnership program, and what kind of pay reform he might support. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.
Q: What are your top priorities as AFGE’s new president?
Cox: The fall elections. That has to be our top priority. Let’s be very clear about that. AFGE is committed to the re-election of Barack Obama; we are certainly committed to the re-election and election of our friends in the House and the Senate. AFGE doesn’t have the mega-billions to put into campaigns. But we have people power, we’ll put boots on the ground. Our people will be out there talking to their friends and their colleagues, and other union members about the issues. And we are facing very serious issues with this election.
Q: What do you think a Mitt Romney presidency would mean for federal employees?
Cox: I believe that he would totally decimate the federal government. He’s very clearly taken the stand that the federal government is a bad thing. And when you say you do not need government, you are saying that veterans do not need health care, that you don’t need Social Security, that you don’t need Medicare, that you don’t need safe food, that the borders do not need protecting, that you don’t need to keep the people in prison that have caused harm. The list goes on and on. That is good government.
Q: President Obama on Aug. 21 announced his intention to extend the pay freeze until Congress passes a budget. What are your plans for trying to fight a further pay freeze?
Cox: We will certainly be trying our best to lobby Congress. We are certainly going to continue to appeal to the president to rethink this process. Federal employees used to get their raise Oct. 1. It got moved to Jan. 1 in the Ronald Reagan years. Now we are talking about moving it maybe to April. You’ve taken a half-percent [raise] and cut it to a quarter of a percent. That is no money. Their health insurance has gone up. I don’t need to tell anyone about the price of gasoline. The cost of living has gone up. How are you going to recruit the best and the brightest to work for the federal government?
I’m not a fool that I don’t understand, sometimes these are uphill battles. I understand the reality, but that doesn’t mean AFGE will not fight the battle. We will fight every round.
Q: Will you ask Obama to make the raise retroactive to Jan. 1, once a budget is passed?
Cox: I would certainly try to make the battle for the retroactive [raise]. They have done that repeatedly on many occasions.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk from chief human capital officers about the need to reform the General Schedule and look at how federal employees are classified and paid. What reforms might AFGE support?
Cox: When I look at all these proposals — pay banding, pay-for-performance — every one of them is clearly about lowering federal employee pay. I have not seen anything I believe that raises federal employee pay or creates this gigantic motivator. Our door’s always been open to have a meaningful dialogue with folks on anything that would improve the system, but we’re not interested in lowering federal employee pay.
Our folks would sometimes like to see additional steps added to the GS system. Many employees go into it for a career, they top out, and when they get no within-grade increase, they are at a total stalemate, which is an unhappy situation. There’s many steps beyond 10 that can be added to [the GS] process.
That would be a wonderful thing, but I’m trying as hard as hell to get a half-percentage point raise, and I’m not making a lot of headway with that. So I’m not sure I could get additional steps added to their pay.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Obama administration’s labor-management partnership effort? Is it where you’d like it to be?
Cox: Oh, not no, but hell no. It’s not where I want it to be. Managers were scared to death from what they experienced in the Bill Clinton years and were sort of ready at the door to stifle and choke the life out of any labor-management partnership. I have seen that very, very clearly. I still believe labor and management working collaboratively together can do great things. I think it can be salvaged. But it does take two to tango, and it will take the administration saying to their managers, ‘Get along with the unions and work things out and resolve things.’
Q: What worked during the Clinton years that is not working now?
Cox: The unions were invited to the table to be part of the solution. Their ideas were heard, and it wasn’t like, ‘We hear you, now we’re going to tell you what we’re going to do.’ They took predecisional [involvement] to heart, heard the concerns and cooperated with the unions. And you saw good products come out of that.
Q: If Mitt Romney wins the White House, do you think that spells the end of labor-management partnerships?
Cox: Yes, I think he certainly would [end them]. I saw what happened with Mr. Bush, after Mr. Clinton. Candidate Romney does not support government employees having unions. So why would he want to have a forum in which he would have a dialogue with unions?
Q: The Border Patrol council said they asked AFGE to suspend TJ Bonner while he was being investigated for wire fraud, but AFGE was hesitant to remove him before charges had been filed. Is that an accurate reflection of what went on?
Cox: That’s one that I totally cannot answer. During that period of time, I was the national secretary-treasurer. The national secretary-treasurer is the only individual in AFGE who can’t be involved in any of those things, because they receive people’s appeals and are the neutral entity that receives all of that information.
I take a very, very strong stance against anyone who misappropriates or misuses union money, government money, or any other money that is not theirs. I have a call today with the executive board [of AFGE] in which I plan to discuss what can we do to try to prevent these type of things, or to have greater control of them in the future. I plan to review all of our procedures and policies as to how we as an organization react to these situations. And if we did not do the appropriate thing at that time because of our procedures and policies, I will be doing everything in my power to change that.
I feel very comfortable [with] the leadership of the Border Patrol council right now, and the individuals there were clearly not involved in this in any way, shape or form. I can’t stop what’s occurred. I do get some power about prevention in the future.
Q: But even if you weren’t briefed on it as secretary-treasurer, you’re president now. As president, do you feel AFGE did enough to hold its senior leaders accountable in the case of Mr. Bonner?
Cox: I’m hesitant to give you an answer on that because, again, I need to know more details. I want a complete and thorough review of anything that we did, and anything that we should have done better.
These things are distasteful to me. I would probably use the word “very disgusting to me.” And they do not help our [labor movement] cause whatsoever. They harm us in every way that they can, and I will be doing everything in my power to stop it.
Q: When AFGE’s review is done, will you release a report outlining what was found?
Cox: I would have no problem releasing a report or making a statement as to what we found, where we’re at and what we’re going to do in the future about it.