Unions split on latest money bills to keep government open
AP photo

WASHINGTON—Unions split on their reactions to the latest money bill package to keep several federal departments and related agencies going through the end of fiscal 2024, which occurs on Sept. 30.

But in all their comments, none pointed out the House’s ruling Republicans bragged that instead of an even balance between military money and domestic needs, the Pentagon finished billions of dollars ahead—or that one of the measures, for the Energy Department, contains $19 billion to “modernize the nuclear weapons stockpile and infrastructure.”

“The bills represent the first overall cut in non-defense, non-VA spending in more than a decade,” said the Republicans’ detailed fact sheet about the money bill package. Leaders of both parties agreed to the legislation. Democratic President Joe Biden signed the package on March 8.

The Government Employees (AFGE) gave cautious praise to the money bill package and the Air Traffic Controllers (NATCA) cheered. Air traffic control, via the Federal Aviation Administration, was one of only two agencies within a federal department to see an actual increase.

The entire Veterans Affairs Department, which employs tens of thousands of AFGE and National Nurses United members, got a hike, too.

But the Machinists, seeing cuts in mass transit aid and a wipeout of additional money to modernize Amtrak, damned the transportation money bill within the package. The union crafted an e-letter opposing it which their members could sign and send to Congress.

The lobbying worked, according to Transport Workers Union President John Samuelsen. Lawmakers rejected the deep Amtrak and mass transit cuts the House Republicans advocated.

The bipartisan leaders in both houses of Congress, including labor stalwarts such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, which crafted the bills, endorsed the legislation, which has total spending of $460 billion on an annual basis.

The far-right Trumpite House Freedom Caucus defected—again—but Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., was aboard. He brought 132 House Republicans along to join the Democrats, whose votes for the package again bailed out the ruling Republicans. The final 339-85 vote saw Democrats favor it 207-2.

The package funds the Departments of Commerce, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Agriculture, and Veterans Affairs.

The second money bill votes, by March 22, are to fund other departments, including the Labor Department and related agencies, such as the National Labor Relations Board. The Republicans, catering to their corporate campaign contributors, want to reduce funding for DOL enforcement agencies—such as OSHA—by double-digit percentages and cut the NLRB’s money by a third.

The Republicans were not united. Some of the hard right’s “social issues,” notably against diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in federal agencies, snuck through into this package. Another provision “prohibits the Justice Department from targeting or investigating parents who exercise their right to free speech at local school board meetings.”

Those “parents” are actually right-wing MAGAites heated to boiling point by talk radio rants against diversity and LGBTQ people, diatribes demanding book banning—or, in Tennessee, book burning—and even at a few rural public school boards, demands to teach “creation theory,” not evolution.

The GOP also froze salaries and expenses at the Veterans Affairs Department at $8.4 billion, eliminating the added $251 million Democratic President Joe Biden sought, as well as a pay freeze at the Agriculture Department (cutting $396 million). Right-wing demands for cuts in funding the Environmental Protection Agency (-9.6%) and the FBI (-6%) are also in the legislation.

The rightists accuse the Biden Justice Department of politicizing the FBI by pursuing their Republican god Donald Trump, while refusing to bring criminal charges involving alleged influence peddling against Biden or his son Hunter—charges for which no evidence exists.

The leaders, NATCA, and AFGE were happy with the House bill. So were the Transport Workers, once Amtrak and mass transit got their funds restored. The leaders’ version of the Transportation Department money bill had cut Amtrak modernization funding from the $665 million Democratic President Joe Biden sought, to $25 million, and also axed 75% of the dollars for transit infrastructure.

“This is a big win for Amtrak passengers, mass transit riders, and union workers who move America,” TWU President John Samuelsen said. “Far right ideologues—with zero care or concern for the nation’s wellbeing—tried to shut down Amtrak and cripple important mass transit infrastructure projects, like the Second Avenue Subway” in New York City.

“They failed. Their insane funding cuts were rejected. The House overwhelmingly sided with the TWU and the American people instead of extremists hellbent on destroying public transit and the high-quality jobs it supports.”

Besides the subway, money will now be available to replace the 150-year-old Amtrak tunnel to Baltimore’s Penn Station “which is in terrible shape and lacks modern fire and safety systems” and to renovate Chicago’s Union Station, among other projects.

“We appreciate lawmakers’ commitment to enacting bipartisan full-year spending bills rather than resorting to a fourth continuing resolution that would likely necessitate drastic automatic cuts in the spring,” AFGE President Clarence Kelley said.

Kelley called the measures “far better than the partisan bills the House considered last year, which sought cuts of 20% or more from key programs and had no chance of becoming law.”

“Within the tight limitations,” lawmakers “managed to protect veterans and people in need, while largely rejecting the restrictive social policy riders and anti-worker measures the House pursued last year and excluding schemes to reduce Congress’s constitutional role in setting budget policy.”

“At the same time, the appropriations process remains fundamentally flawed. The fiscal year is already half over” and all the temporary money bills, called continuing resolutions, “resulted in damaging freezes and reductions to many vital federal programs. The proposed fiscal 2024 bills are at best an effort to tread water.”

Air Traffic Controllers President Rich Santa was more positive. The Transportation Department money includes “$12.73 billion to fully fund air traffic control operations and allow the FAA to hire 1,800 air traffic controllers to replace the retiring workforce,” a detailed fact sheet says. That’s $820 million more than in the fiscal year which ended last September 30. The money bill includes another $3.191 billion to modernize towers and equipment, $246 million more than in the last fiscal year.

Passing the Transportation-HUD money bill would “avoid a costly and damaging shutdown, and provide necessary investment in our aviation system that millions of Americans rely upon,” said Santa. “NATCA hopes this bipartisan collaboration will jumpstart next year’s appropriations process and avoid future budgetary brinksmanship. We urge Congress to pass this appropriations package without delay.”

Left unsaid: In prior government shutdowns, the 14,000 or so Air Traffic Controllers were deemed “essential workers,” forced to toil without pay for days or—under former Republican White House denizen Donald Trump—more than a month.

The Machinists, however, weren’t happy—especially their rail division, before the cuts were reversed on the House floor.

“Tell your Reps: NO CUTS TO THE RAILROADS,” the union posted on its website (Their emphasis).

House Republicans have launched a full-scale attack on rail workers. They’ve chosen to abandon the agreement negotiated between President Biden and” former “House Speaker McCarthy and propose devastating cuts to the nation’s transit system and hard-working Americans’ retirement.”

Only one other surface transportation program got an increase, for rail safety. The freight rail derailment and crash a year ago in East Palestine, Ohio, exposed gaping holes in safety systems—and federal oversight. In essence, the Federal Railroad Administration lets the freight carriers regulate themselves, with awful results.

To start reversing that, the Transportation Department money bill “prioritizes rail safety programs, including $268 million for safety and operations, which is $17 million above the FY23 enacted level,” the bill analysis says.


Press Associates
Press Associates

Press Associates Inc. (PAI), is a union news service in Washington D.C. Mark Gruenberg is the editor.