Union reps warn of “devastating” budget cuts

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WASHINGTON - Federal workers and retirees of all kinds, plus disabled people, are in danger of big cuts from federal budget ideas now being batted around Washington, union legislative representatives say.

In a Dec. 12 telephone press conference, Beth Moten of the American Federation of Government Employees, Bruce Moyer, chair of the 31-group Federal-Postal Coalition; Jessica Klement of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) and Maureen Gilman, legislative-political director of the Treasury Employees (NTEU) said the threats are coming from two different directions.

The unions and their allies have launched campaigns against the budget cutting ideas, contacting lawmakers both in D.C. and at home.  But so far, they're getting non-committal reactions, the legislative reps say.

"The lawmakers say 'Thank you for your service. We appreciate it, but the country is in a big fiscal mess and it'll take shared sacrifice to fix it,'" one rep said.

"They're taking it seriously," Moten said of lawmakers' reaction to their lobbying.

For active federal workers, including those who will be hired after Jan. 1, the threat is an actual 4-6 percent annual pay cut, Gilman and Moten said. That's how much more the feds will have to contribute, out of their paychecks, to pay for their future pensions, with no rise in future benefits.

"For a VA hospital nurse making $27,000 a year, that's a $630 pay cut," said Moten, whose union represents those nurses. "For a correctional officer in a federal prison, dealing with gang members, who earns $39,000 a year, it's $900.

"These are sacrifices people would make after Dec. 31," on top of $103 billion in increased pension payments and pay freezes that federal workers have already undergone, she added.

The threat to retirees, the disabled, veterans and others who receive similar payments is a change in the base used for calculating their payments, from the current Consumer Price Index to the so-called "Chained CPI," which rises less and which doesn't include health care costs. That chained CPI also would be imposed on current federal workers in calculating proposed annual cost-of-living increases.

Budget-cutters are looking at the chained CPI because it is hard to explain and because it could save $200 billion-$300 billion over a decade, Klement added.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, confirmed those ideas are among the schemes floating around Capitol Hill. But he admitted that almost all lawmakers, along with their constituents, have no idea of details of White House-Congress discussions of a tax hike-spending cut package.

Another budget cut idea, included in a defense bill last year, that would arbitrarily fire 35,000 Defense Department civilian workers, has drawn an Obama administration veto threat, Van Hollen said. AFGE is campaigning to delete that cut of workers.

The 31 groups in the coalition are mobilizing members for both lobbying in D.C. and for contacting lawmakers at their offices in home states, by e-mail or both.  Their point is that federal workers have sacrificed enough to help stem the tide of government red ink, and that it's time for "shared sacrifice," as Moyer put it.  That means increasing taxes on the rich, who can afford to pay, and who have not been asked for a penny yet.

"We have a massive email campaign going, and we brought people in to D.C. for several days to talk with their lawmakers, too," Moten said.

"All of us have an 'America counts on us' campaign," Gilman added. "Each of our organizations is notifying our people all over the country to get involved. People don't realize it, but 85 percent of federal workers live outside metropolitan Washington."

"The president's budget plan has a menu of options," Van Hollen said. GOP House Speaker John "Boehner's plan hasn't itemized any except for raising the age of Medicare eligibility" to 67 "and the chained CPI. "It's time for them to spell out in detail what they're proposing," he said of the GOP. Republicans also "want to extend the federal pay freeze through 2013," Van Hollen added.

Besides AFGE and NTEU, other unions in the coalition are the AFSCME, the Postal Workers, the Fire Fighters, the Machinists, the Professional & Technical Engineers, the Laborers, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the National Association of Government Employees, the Letter Carriers, the National Federation of Federal Employees/IAM, the Mail Handlers, the Rural Letter Carriers, the National Weather Service Employees, the Professional Employees at the Department of Agriculture, and the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists.  NARFE is a federal retirees group.  Federally Employed Women is also part of the coalition.

Photo: John Bachtell/PW

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