Pay freeze saves peanuts, AFGE leader charges

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Labor and its allies have come out swinging against President Obama's call for a two-year pay freeze for federal workers.

"No one is served by our government participating in a race to the bottom in wages," declared AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Nov. 29. "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."

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, was even more severe in his criticism of the plan.

"This proposal is a superficial panic reaction to the draconian cuts his (President Obama's) deficit commission will recommend. A federal pay freeze saves peanuts at best and, while he may mean it as just a public relations gesture, this is no time for political scapegoating," he said.

Gage said the two-year freeze "barely makes a dent in the federal budget deficit but will be devastating to the VA nursing assistant making $28,000 a year or a border patrol agent earning $34,000 per year."

Gage said, "While President Obama asks federal workers to share the sacrifice, it is unconscionable for him to attack the wages of federal working people while the millionaires and billionaires on Wall Street not only get their bailouts and astronomical bonuses; they also get their tax cuts. We need to invest in jobs, not undermine the ones we have."

Calling the pay freeze proposal "a play from the Republican handbook," The Hill said, "The move represents the first time Obama has fully embraced a Republican idea on spending cuts since the election, and the proposal can be seen as either an olive branch to newly empowered Republicans or a Clintonesque attempt to co-opt their ideas."

House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said he would "review" the proposal but avoided promising to take it up in the lame duck session.

Progressive lawmakers are openly challenging the proposal while conservatives are voicing support.

"It would have been far preferable for the White House to have included this as part of a comprehensive proposal, instead of singling put the hard working men and women of the federal workforce," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., in a statement to the press.

"By focusing almost exclusively on federal employees, the president runs the risk of re-enforcing the myth, pushed by some for politically convenient but cynical reasons that America suffers from a federal government comprised of unproductive and overpaid civil servants. Nothing could be further from the truth," Van Hollen said.

If Obama actually intends to make the wage freeze proposal materialize it will require forming a coalition on Capitol Hill of Republicans and conservative Democrats.

Signaling his willingness to make this happen, Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson quickly announced his "wholehearted support" for the wage freeze as did Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-CT., chairman of the Senate's Government Affairs Committee.

Jamelle Bouie at American Prospect's Tapped called the pay freeze "pointless and self defeating."

"When you control for experience, gender, race, and total work hours - along with education - then government workers are paid 3.74 percent less than their private sector counterparts. Simply put, the federal employees aren't making a mint off of their association with the government, and freezing their pay does nothing more than take money out of their pockets and out of the economy."

Dean Baker, a leading U.S. economist said the freeze would mean "consumption would fall by $1 billion in 2011 and $2.5 billion in 2012. GDP will be about 0.0007 percent lower in 2011 and about 0.018 percent lower in 2012, implying drops in private sector employment in these years of 7,000 and 18,000 jobs, respectively."

Photo: Among the tens of thousands of jobs federal employees do is at the federal agency, NIOSH, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which conducts research and makes recommendations for the prevention of work-related injury and illness. (NIOSH/CC)