Fighting for benefits: One local union's successful battle for transit subsidies

Frankie's article on telework has inspired me to write about one of my own experiences with what many call “quality of worklife” initiatives in the federal government. While not all quality of worklife programs are good for federal and other workers, I am focusing on those that are.

Fighting for quality of worklife issues was a major part of my organizing in federal unions. In addition to telework, these initiatives included alternate work schedules and transit subsidies. These are all important to federal workers, with transit subsidies providing monetary gain. Considering that federal unions cannot bargain over wages in most cases, makes this a very significant benefit.

One of the locals affiliated with my union, AFSCME Council 26 (which merged a few years back with AFSCME Council 20), represented the stateside employees of the Peace Corps. These workers’ responsibilities included recruiting volunteers, supporting them overseas as well as many administrative functions. It was very difficult to maintain and keep the union organized because virtually every worker in the agency was temporary, which meant that all union officers, shop stewards and other activists were temporary: Just as a new leader was hitting their stride, it was time to move on. This policy was originally intended to give Peace Corp volunteers a soft landing when they returned from their overseas assignments. It did that but it also made the Peace Corp a very disorganized agency with little institutional memory and a struggling local union. This terrain made our successful fights all the more impressive.

In 1992, the union discovered that the Peace Corp had budgeted around $29,000 to provide parking in a private garage for a small group of managers. Besides being unfair, this was bad for the environment in that it encouraged driving. First, union leaders and other activists circulated a petition among agency workers demanding that management divert the money used for bosses' parking to fund transit subsidies for the workers. We then requested a meeting with the Agency head, Elaine Chao, who was/is Mitch McConnell’s spouse and who would become a member of both George W. Bush’s and Donald Trump's Cabinets..

At the meeting we presented the petition to Chao, but not surprisingly, she refused to take away managers’ parking. She also claimed that the agency couldn’t afford it. When we further argued that offering workers’ a transit subsidy would benefit the environment by encouraging them to use public transportation, she responded that it wasn’t the Peace Corps’ policy to try to change human behavior. Had she paid attention to the work of her stateside staff and overseas volunteers, she would have known that changing behavior to achieve a better quality of life was precisely the agency’s mission.

To overcome this resistance, we contacted a friend in the media, the late Washington Post columnist Mike Causey, who wrote a column on federal worker issues that appeared in the front section of the Post five days a week. He was very pro-union, having been a leader in what was then called the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, Local 35.

After hearing us out, Mike wrote a column which presented our fight in clear class struggle terms, writing that the fight was the “Washington version of the Old West turf wars in which wealthy cattlemen squared off against hardscrabble farmers for control of the range.”  The column, which appeared on page A2, was widely read and greatly embarrassed top Peace Corps management. As a result of this press push and coordinated collective action by the workers, management agreed to the union’s proposal and still found the money to continue paying for the managers’ parking.

This policy became a part of the next collective bargaining agreement and telework was greatly expanded in subsequent years. Council 26 continued the fight for telework in other affiliated local unions through collective action, grievances and negotiations. 

A final note: the successful struggle for telework, transit subsidies, alternate work schedules and similar programs was the result of the hard work of federal workers and their unions. Many thousands of these workers, and their families, have benefited from these successes, including my own. We must be vigilant and ready to fight powerful forces who would like to take them away.

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