Unionized federal workers take political action

Members campaign in battleground states, staff phone banks

October 30, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Sparked by a number of controversial moves made by the Bush administration over the past three years, unionized federal workers are engaged in this year's presidential election like never before, union officials and political observers say.

"We've found unprecedented numbers of federal employees expressing interest in this election," said Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, the country's largest labor union of federal workers. "There's a lot of concern."

Union dissatisfaction with President Bush on worker issues, an unsteady economy and concern over government restructuring are driving the increased activism, political observers said. And the easing of restrictions imposed by a 1939 law that severely limited federal workers' political activities is making it easier to get involved.

Two of the country's largest federal employee unions have endorsed the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry -- AFGE, which has 600,000 members, and the National Treasury Employees Union, with 150,000 members.

And they are backing up their endorsements with action. Union members are staffing phone banks and going to tightly contested states to get out the vote among fellow members.

"It is not even a close call ... more than ever before," Colleen M. Kelley, the National Treasury Employees Union president, said about her members' activism this year. "Every day new volunteers are stepping forward, even with the election this close."

But Republicans say they also expect support from federal workers, particularly those who work for defense-related agencies such as the National Security Agency.

"Most of the federal workers involved in defense tend to go right. They tend to be conservative," said Debra Martinez, spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party. "There is a growing Republican base in that region [suburban Washington]. ... Democrats don't necessarily have a lock on [federal workers.]"

Maryland, has about 130,000 federal workers, one of the highest concentrations in the country. Major federal employers include the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, Fort Meade in western Anne Arundel County and several large agencies and departments in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Barry Rascovar, political commentator for WYPR-FM in Baltimore and a former Sun editorial writer, said the federal government's economic largesse in Maryland helps bring the state a measure of stability in tough fiscal times.

But workers in domestic agencies tend to be more liberal than their counterparts in defense-related institutions, he said. "It helps explain why Montgomery County has a liberal concentration, because it has probably the highest number [of federal workers] in the state," Rascovar said.

James Gimpel, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that Maryland's state politics were transformed by programs that expanded the federal bureaucracy in the last century, and created a wide base of jobs in the Baltimore-Washington region. As a result, the region has attracted workers who want to serve in government positions, he said.

"They start out being more Democratically inclined and more liberal to begin with," Gimpel said of workers in domestic agencies. "Once they are there, they developed a more entrenched commitment to their agency, to the idea that government can do more positive things."

Federal workers' off-the-job activism was helped 11 years ago when legislators loosened the 1939 Hatch Act, which had strictly curtailed federal workers' political involvement. The act was amended to give federal workers more freedom to get involved with political campaigns, as long as their efforts stayed outside the workplace.

But the law still precludes federal workers from engaging in political activities or wearing political buttons at work, or using their official title or authority to assist a candidate.

Most federal workers -- except those in certain law enforcement, defense and intelligence agencies -- can assist in voter registration drives, contribute to political organizations, attend rallies and meetings, distribute campaign literature, and even make speeches for candidates. Federal workers are still getting accustomed to the new provisions, said Kelley, the NTEU president.

"It has definitely been a steady growth process of increasing involvement and exercising of those newly found rights," Kelley said.

While this election has caught the attention of federal workers, many consider Maryland to be a "blue state" that will go to Kerry in the election by a safe margin.

So the unions have asked members to help in tightly contested states. For several weeks, federal workers, acting as union members, have manned phone banks in Maryland, making calls to fellow members in other states. They've also been sent to other states to canvass neighborhoods and contact their members, urging them to vote, union officials said.

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