It's been hard to find any daylight between President Obama and the federal employee unions that worked hard to put him in office -- until now.
When he released his proposed 2010 budget summary yesterday, the unions were not pleased. The budget calls for civilian workers to get a 2 percent raise while military personnel would see a 2.9 percent bump. It's not the paltry increase that's so upsetting to the unions, particularly when unemployment lines keep growing. Rather, it's the dismissal of the principle of parity that makes the employees so upset.
The lack of movement toward closing the pay gap between government workers and those in the private sector also leaves union leaders wanting more.
But the way they expressed that displeasure also shows how the labor organizations differ in their approach to getting the White House to accept fundamental planks in their platforms.
Consider the reaction of the largest federal employee union. The first line of the statement it issued in reaction to the spending plan said: "The American Federation of Government Employees today applauded the Obama Administration's 2010 fiscal budget."
AFGE President John Gage went on to say the union "is not happy" with the recommended pay increase, but "understands it given the severity of our nation's economic situation."
But Obama's plan left Richard N. Brown, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, more puzzled than supportive.
"We are baffled by the large disparity in the proposed pay adjustments for civilian federal workers and military personnel," he said. "There is a long tradition of pay parity between civilians and the military, and we believe that tradition should be continued."
And then the line of attack: "We will be asking Congress for a bigger raise than 2 percent."
That warning about congressional action tells Obama that at least one union is willing to go around him if it doesn't like his policies. AFGE demurred on that point, saying it's too soon to say anything about legislation. Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, also was cautious about playing the congressional card, saying she wants to talk with the administration first.
Brown sounds confident that civilian-military pay parity will be the rule next year no matter what Obama says. "The president's submission of a budget to Congress is just the first step in the budget process. There is an abundance of support among lawmakers for the principle of pay parity," he declared.
"In the past we have seen even larger discrepancies between civilian and military pay in White House budgets, yet Congress has consistently resolved toward pay parity. We will urge Congress to act in a similar fashion this year and give civilian federal employees a fair and equal raise."
Given history, he has reason to be optimistic that Congress will make parity a reality. Last year, a bipartisan group of Washington area representatives told then-President Bush in a letter that "we cannot express strongly enough the importance of continuing the tradition of pay parity between military and civilian employees."
The first name on the letter was Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader from Maryland. He released a statement yesterday calling on Obama to uphold the principle of pay parity, even while Hoyer said "it's to be expected that during this time of shared sacrifice there will not likely be a federal employee adjustment equal to last year's level."
Pay comparability with the private sector is more than a principle. It's the law, but one Uncle Sam routinely breaks. The Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 called for closing the pay gap between federal workers and the private sector.
Sam's staffers know there's little chance that's going to happen anytime soon. "The pay gap between private and public sector employees continues to widen, but we recognize the unique situation our country is currently facing," said Darryl Perkinson, president of the Federal Managers Association, which, by the way, did not endorse a candidate in the presidential election.
The White House argues that the 2 percent brings "federal pay and benefit practices more in line with the private sector." Of course, the increase, which probably will be more in many areas, including Washington, with locality pay, is more than comparable to those in the private sector who now have no pay at all. And it's better than the freeze Obama placed on White House senior staffers.
"Federal employees also will be asked to do their part," says Obama's budget summary.
No problem there. They just want to make sure it's their fair part.
Joe Davidson, Washington Post