WASHINGTON -- Worried about further pay freezes and pension cuts, the unions representing federal and postal workers have a message for legislators seeking a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction: Don't look to us for more savings.
"Our position is quite firmly that we are the only group of Americans that have [already] had to make any sacrifice whatsoever to deficit reduction," said Jackie Simon, the public policy director at the American Federation of Government Employees. AFGE, the largest federal employees union, represents some 670,000 workers.
"You've got to look elsewhere for your cuts if you have to make them," Simon added.
Lawmakers will spend the coming weeks scrambling to avoid the "fiscal cliff," when drastic cuts hit domestic and defense programs in early 2013. If they want to stave off the automatic cuts, they must find other ways to help reduce the $1 trillion deficit. The president has already warned his progressive base that they may not like some of the measures that emerge from the deficit talks.
The looming cuts have kept labor unions in full-on campaign mode after the Nov. 6 election. The AFL-CIO has vowed it will oppose any deal between the White House and Congress that includes reductions in Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid funding, the kind of cuts that had reportedly been on the table during last year's failed grand-bargain negotiations between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R).
Aside from those social insurance programs, federal and postal unions say they're concerned separate cuts could hit the workers they represent. Republicans have long decried the federal workforce as bloated and its employees as overpaid, while even Democrats have recently shown a willingness to withhold cost-of-living raises for federal workers. Obama signed off on a federal pay freeze in 2010 that was initially meant to last two years but has since been extended through March 2013.
"We're very nervous about Congress sort of zeroing in on postal employees' and federal employees' pensions and heath care," said Jim Sauber, chief of staff at the National Association of Letter Carriers, which has nearly 300,000 union members. "It's been an easy target. They've repeatedly gone to that well to pay for things in the past. I guess we're all willing to do our fair share, but so far this community has really been targeted."
In a memo obtained by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, which purported to show a grand-bargain offer from the White House to Boehner last year, the $200 billion in proposed savings included $33 billion from "civilian retirement" and another $16 billion from "postal reform."
In a letter sent to Congress Thursday, AFGE declared federal workers "the lone group of Americans who have made sacrifices to deficit reduction," adding that the workforce has "suffered cuts worth more than $100 billion over ten years, all of which were made to reduce deficits. Enough is enough."
According to the union, that $100 billion over a decade includes $60 billion from the two-year pay freeze, $28 billion from a reduced raise for 2013 and $15 billion from reduced retirement benefits. The letter noted that the benefit reductions imposed on new federal and postal employees footed the bill for half of the cost of extending unemployment insurance last February.
Many conservatives maintain that cuts to federal pay and benefits could go further. James Sherk, a Heritage Foundation policy analyst and critic of federal employee compensation packages, said the entire pay system for federal workers should be overhauled. Short of that, Sherk said, further pay freezes or even a raise in the eligible age for retirement should be on the table over the next two months.
"I think it's quite reasonable to include them in the talks," Sherk said. "If everything is on the table -- higher taxes, Social Security and Medicare [cuts] -- the notion of raising the retirement age is something that would be much less of a painful sacrifice."
Sauber said that raising the age at which postal workers can start collecting their pensions -- or the age at which the larger population becomes eligible for Medicare -- would change people's standard of living.
"These are blue-collar workers with very physical jobs," Sauber said of letter carriers. "The idea of raising the retirement age or the eligibility for Medicare for us would be really painful and wouldn't make a lot of sense."
The unions' primary hope is that Obama has a stronger hand now in the wake of his election victory than he did during negotiations last summer -- and that he'll be willing to expend some of his political capital to stave off pay freezes or pension cuts.
"Austerity began for us three or four years ago," Sauber said, speaking of federal employees. "Now they're getting around to it for the rest of the budget. It's appropriate that we do our share, but not more than it."
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