WHAT UNIONS DO WITH RETIREES, FORMER FEDS, & STAFF MEMBERS
Individual federal sector unions have done different things with those who have retired from or otherwise left the federal government—or anyone else allowed to join who is not an active federal employee in the bargaining unit, e.g., union staff, unit employees moved into management, members-at-large, etc. So, it is worth asking if any of the different approaches makes sense, and, if so, does one approach seem particularly wise. This posting will look at the role these folks can play in AFGE, NAGE, NATCA, NFFE, and NTEU, particularly in regards to dues, holding elected office, receiving communications, participating in benefit programs, special programs for them, and how they can help the union.
AFGE requires that its local to pay only a $6.00 annual per capita tax for retired members compared to about $240 a year for currently employed members. Retired members can run for office unless they join pursuant to the Special Retiree Affiliation (SRA retirees provision which denies them the right to “candidacy for office.”) SRA members pay an annual $50 affiliation fee in addition to retiree dues.
NTEU charges retirees, former federal employees, and staff only $42.00 a year in comparison to active employee dues which range between $199 and $499 a year for the national office according to DOL. (We cannot include a hyperlink to the NTEU Constitution because it appears the union does not post a copy outside its firewalls. Even the DOL only has the 2011 version posted, which is obsolete.)
NATCA’s dues average $1,250 per DOL reports for the national office and like NTEU it also subsidizes the dues paid by its “Active Retired Volunteers” charging them only $35. a year. However, they may not vote or hold office.
NWSEO – Charges active members up to $566 a year nationally, but its Board sets the dues for retired or associate members at a “nominal” annual rate, further underscoring the practice of deeply subsidizing their membership. The retired or former member is not entitled to hold office unless the national executive board issues the individual a waiver of that prohibition.
NAGE – Like AFGE, it permits retirees two options for retaining membership. If the retiree wishes to retain his/her right to vote in union affairs and hold office, s/he must pay the full dues rate, which according to DOL averages $511. a year; however, if s/he does not want to vote or hold office the dues are $50. annually to the national.
NFFE dues average $653 per year covering national and local charges according to DOL. If one wants to retain full membership rights, including the right to hold office once s/he retirees or leaves government, s/he must continue to pay the full dues amount. If they just wish to retain some affiliation with the union, it is a $10. one-time fee.
The most obvious pattern running through these practices is that every union offers to subsidize retirees or former employees with nominal dues rates. NAGE permits them to retain all the rights of an active federal employee member, including the right to hold elected office, if they pay the full dues rate If they want the subsidized rate they lose the right to run for elected office. AFGE reduces the dues or national per capita tax to $6.00 a year and permits almost all retired members to run for office. NTEU permits all retirees, former employees and staff to vote and hold office either of the two nationally elected union offices, but not other Executive Board seats, without paying the full dues rate. We searched for an explanation of some require full dues payment in order to hold elected office in the union while others do not, but could not find one. We even searched for some DOL case law on the issue given that law and regulation require that all members have equal rights, elections be run in fair and democratic manners, and the prohibition against unions sponsoring or subsidizing candidates for elected office. But we found nothing challenging the nominal dues of retirees, former feds or staff running for office in any union. Similarly, we found nothing challenging the practice of allowing unions to grant individual members waivers of the right to hold office.
None of the unions appears to establish a seat on its national executive board solely to represent the interests of retirees nor do they appear to have a national officer or even staff member dedicated solely to servicing retirees.
A search of the Internet failed to reveal any special programs these unions run exclusively for retirees or newsletters touching solely on their interests.
The biggest surprise for us was that none of the unions seem to be taking advantage of the enormous asset retired employees can be to them, namely, as an active political and media force. Former federal employees are no longer covered by the Hatch Act. After a career in government, they can openly campaign for candidates, endorse them, volunteer in their offices, and solicit funds for them. We know of nothing which would bar unions from establishing groups of retirees to do all of that, e.g., issue a press release entitled, “Former SSA Employees Support Congressman Jones for Office” or “Former IRS Employees Sponsor “Smith for Congress” Rally. National or local unions could even pay them to travel to Washington, DC to camp out in a Congressional office whenever key votes were looming.
Not long ago the Washington Post wrote a story about why big business has not radically increased its political contributions now that the Supreme Court has said that elected officials are available for rent or hire. After all, nothing stops businesses from sponsoring Congressional reps just like they do Little League teams; they could issue them shirts with company logos if they wished to wear to the floor for votes to build spirit. (NASCAR jump suits covered with sponsorships insignia would be very cool.) The Post explained that they are not doing that because they have found it even more effective to wait until key votes are to be held and then swarm the Hill with lobbyists. Union’s cannot do that unless they have supporters who can leave town on a moment’s notice, fly to DC, and dog representatives at critical times. Obviously, the current approach of using full-time national staff to lobby is not working well enough for unions.
Similarly, unions could use retirees as speakers around the community to support the necessary funding of government and protect federal benefits from attacks. It would not take much to train former union activists how to handle a radio interview, speak at local community group meetings, write for community newsletters, etc.
Another big surprise is that none of the unions seems to be going out of its way to retain current members as some kind of member once they retire. A Google search failed to identify any union web pages dedicated to the interests and issues of retirees. We saw a lot of discount programs for hotels, moving vans, and the like, but not one for hearing aids. How hard would it be for a union to work out a deal with AARP ($16.00 per year) or NARFE ($42.00 per year) to pay a member’s annual dues membership to one of those organizations out of the dues paid to the national union or to provide them some benefit when they contribute to the union’s political action funds.
Given how critical politics is to past and current federal employees, we find it stunning that federal unions are not tapping their retiree potential more. The United Autoworkers Union has long had the best union retiree organization in the country in case anyone is looking for a model. AFSCME, CWA and a few others do a great job too.