One Reason GOP Loves the Sequester: It Punishes Union Workers

Back in 2011, in order to prevent the crash of the global economy that could have easily followed a default by the United States of America on its national debt, the president signed a deal with obstinate Republicans so that the government would be allowed to pay its creditors with a lifting of a limitation known as the debt ceiling.

The deal the president agreed was said to be such a cup of poison, even to Republicans, that they would never allow it to go into effect. Called sequestration or, simply, “the sequester,” the deal comprised across-the-board cuts to every government agency, including the Republicans’ beloved Department of Defense, set to take place after the presidential election. Surely, they would never allow that to happen.

But then, to the administration’s surprise, they did. Not only did they allow it to happen, they refused all attempts at a compromise to forestall it. What the administration failed to consider is how the sequester, even if hitting Republicans’ favorite programs, offered the GOP a bonus in its war on federal workers -- especially those who belong to public sector unions, which they see as the key to President Barack Obama’s victory in the 2012 election.

And it put the administration in the uncomfortable position of having government agencies choose where to find their personnel savings: by hitting the income of government workers, or curtailing contracts for non-government personnel. (Given the clout held by contractors through their K Street lobbyists, it's not hard to determine who's likely to lose in that contest.)

In a matter of days, furloughs of federal workers are set to begin as part of the spending cuts enforced by the sequester. The furloughs mandated by the terms of the sequester consist of mandatory time off -- without pay -- for federal employees. In some agencies, between now and September 30, workers will be required to take off 22 days, with no compensation -- amounting to a 20 percent pay cut for that time period.

A Boon for Contractors?

Federal workers represented by the American Federation of Government Employees* suspect that the sequester is being manipulated by agencies in ways that favor government contractors over the workers themselves, allowing big contracting firms an even greater foothold in the government workforce as non-union, contracted permatemps step forward to fill roles traditionally held by government employees.

Among all the government agencies, the Defense Department is expected to furlough the biggest number of federal workers: some 800,000.

Robin Nichols works for the Defense Logistics Agency, which oversees a large share of DoD’s contracts, and serves AFGE as the executive vice president of the bargaining council that represents workers in that agency.

“I see the service contracts when they come through for renewal, and while we have asked the director of the Defense Logistics Agency to be very prudent with cutting the service contracts to maybe cut down the furlough days for government employees, we are finding that they are expediting the renewal of those contracts, so that contracts will be reviewed before those furlough dates begin,” Nichols said at a press conference called by AFGE at the National Press Club on March 13. “And we see that as an injustice and a disservice to the federal employees.”

A week after Nichols offered that observation, DoD announced a two-week delay in beginning its furloughs, for additional planning by the department, thanks to Republican-sponsored legislation that will, among other things, allow it to move forward with certain contracts, according to the Washington Post.

“Government contracts are extremely lucrative...,” said AFGE President J. David Cox at the press conference. “There’s a lot of political favoritism that goes on with government contracts and protection of contractors.”

He said that one U.S. Army publication estimated that the ratio of federal employees to contracted workers subject to the furloughs would be 9 to 1.

Perhaps that favoritism plays a role in the lack of support federal workers feel they are getting from the Obama administration as the Republicans come gunning for their jobs. The Office of Management and Budget, Cox wrote recently in an op-ed, offers little encouragement or instruction for curtailing contracts in its guidance on sequestration, but great specificity on how to furlough government workers.

The Role of Elections

Even if the sequester proves to be helpful to certain contractors in the short run -- including those who support Democrats in political campaigns -- Republicans, in their refusal to compromise, are likely focusing on the long run in their war on federal workers. Specifically, the long run that leads to electoral victories at the national level.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference, where anti-labor activists convened in Oxon Hill, Md., on March 15 at a panel discussion on the anti-union laws passed in Indiana and Michigan, you might have expected the duplicitous right-wing rhetoric that trumpets, as a triumph for workers, laws that allow people to work in union shops without paying for the representation provided by the union. (The panel was titled “Free at Last: When the Right to Work Came Back to the Midwest.”)

But author Mallory Factor, whose favorite bugaboo is public-sector unions, devoted his remarks not to the purported benefits that so-called “right to work” anti-union laws confer on workers, but to the voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts organized by unions -- to the detriment of Republicans.

Factor is the co-author of Shadowbosses: Government Unions Control America and Rob Taxpayers Blind (described by the authoritative review site, Kirkus, as “[a]n errant stab at vilifying government-employee unions as an elemental cause behind national woes”). At the CPAC breakout session, he didn’t have to spell out his precise meaning; his audience got it: diminish the unions, and you diminish the ranks of Democratic voters who make it to the polls.

“Unions have suffered major setbacks,” Factor told the gathering of right-wing activists. “But in response to these setbacks, unions have doubled down; they’ve doubled down on political spending and built a monumental voter registration, electioneering and get-out-the-vote machine. As a result, my friends, the unions almost single-handedly won re-election for Obama in 2012, and they pose a real threat to the Republicans’ ability to take back the White House and the Senate in the near term.”

Factor went on to terrify his listeners with the story of Ohio where, he said, some 1,800 local union offices, “with deep roots in the community,” provided the means to turn out voters, especially African Americans who, he noted, comprised a greater portion of the electorate (15 percent) than they had in 2008 (11 percent).

Kill the unions, it was implied, and those people will likely stay home on election day.

As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The right’s state-level anti-union laws are one way to diminish unions’ power; replacing unionized federal workers with non-union contract workers is another. (Make government work unstable and poorly compensated, and you’ll push federal workers into the shops of contractors.) Neither saves the government much, if any, money in the end, but both approaches diminish the ranks of union members.

In fact, a 2011 study by the Project on Government Oversight found that work performed by federal employees is typically more cost-efficient -- by far -- that that done by contract workers. As described by the New York Times:

The study found that in 33 of 35 occupations, the government actually paid billions of dollars more to hire contractors than it would have cost government employees to perform comparable services. On average, the study found that contractors charged the federal government more than twice the amount it pays federal workers.

I asked Cox, the union president, if he viewed the sequester as a war on government workers.

“[W]e do believe that it’s a war on federal employees,” Cox replied. "It’s not necessarily a war on spending government resources. It’s just a war on having federal employees to do the work.”

* Full disclosure: the author worked for AFGE from September 2001 to November 2005.


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