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Home » Clarion » 2011 » January 2011 » Viewpoint: Obama vs. Labor in Federal Pay Freeze

Viewpoint: Obama vs. Labor in Federal Pay Freeze


The Obama Administration, looking to bolster its deficit-cutting credentials and show its desire to take on what some label a “special interest” – organized labor – yesterday announced a two-year freeze on the wages of all federal workers. Tim Fernholz of The American Prospect points out that the pay freeze will reduce the deficit by just 0.1% over the next 10 years. Obama’s pay freeze reinforces the notion that public employees earn exorbitant salaries, despite a Bureau of Labor Statistics report showing that civil servants earn 24% less than their counterparts in the private sector.

“This proposal to freeze federal pay is a superficial, panicked reaction to the deficit commission report,” stated AFGE National President John Gage, a union that represents over 600,000 federal government employees. “This pay freeze amounts to nothing more than political public relations. This is no time for scapegoating. The American people didn’t vote to stick it to a VA nursing assistant making $28,000 a year or a border patrol agent earning $34,000 per year.”


AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka at a rally on Wall St.
10c Trumka on Wall St. CROPPED IMG_7302rev.jpg

“No one is served by our government participating in a ‘race to the bottom’ in wages,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “The president talked about the need for shared sacrifice, but there’s nothing shared about Wall Street and CEOs making record profits and bonuses while working people bear the brunt.”

The pay freeze is in line with the president’s earlier attacks on teachers unions and lack of leadership on the Employee Free Choice Act. Obama and his advisors calculate that attacking “greedy federal workers” will allow Obama to claim he is willing to take on “special interests” – though he proved unwilling to take on the rich over the Bush tax cuts. In the short run, it may work: recent polling analysis by the Center for American Progress shows that as high unemployment continues, public support for unions has declined.

But Obama’s effort to score cheap political points by scapegoating workers may have a ripple effect that could impede economic recovery and imperil Democrats in 2012.


“Is this Obama’s PATCO?” says Campaign for America’s Future Co-Director Robert Borosage, referring to President Ronald Reagan’s mass-firing of Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization members in 1981. “Will employers across the country use his language and his message to inflict another round of pay cuts?” Obama’s attempt to define pay cuts for workers as “shared sacrifice” can be adopted by private employers without changing a word. But a cut in wages by corporations across the board could decrease demand, swinging us even further into a depression.

Regardless of the economic impact of Obama’s pay freeze, the political impact is clear: Republicans smell blood in the water and will attempt to push the White House to make even more attacks on workers. Trumpeting the pay freeze as a significant deficit-cutting measure – when in fact it is not – reinforces the Republican message that unionized public workers are both unnecessary and overpaid.

Meanwhile, workers will continue to wonder who is on their side. Indeed, the vote of union members appears to be at turning point. Last November, for the first time in a generation, less than 50% of union members voted Democratic. Obama’s attacks on federal workers will push them even further into the arms of right-wing, corporate-funded, populist demagogues.

“There will be no rejoicing in the homes of workers tonight,” said UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend after the pay freeze was announced. “But the corporate CEOs who frequently dine at the White House will enjoy this immensely as they realize what an opportunity this president has presented them.”

Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer and labor journalist based in Washington, DC. Another version of this article was originally published online November 30 in Working In These Times, the labor blog of the newspaper In These Times.

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