The recent email from leaders of Offutt Air Force Base's civilian employees union to its members included a proposal for how workers should deal with the furloughs hanging over their heads.
It suggested that all 2,800 of Offutt's civilian employees should take their 22 sequester-related unpaid days during the same 30-day window in September.
“By proposing this,” the email said, “it will show that without the Civilian Employees, the Base will be crippled.”
The suggestion that the union would do anything to keep the Bellevue-area base from performing its missions sparked a firestorm last week, angering some members of the local, raising the eyebrows of a congressman and sparking a strong repudiation from the national union that represents the workers.
David Clarke, an Offutt mechanic from Omaha, spoke out against the proposal during a meeting last week.
“That's wrong,'' he said. “You put people's lives in danger when you do things like that. That's not what the union is about.”
A union member also forwarded the email to Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., who found the plan disturbing. “It's just amazing to me that someone would want to cripple one of the major bases defending our country — that that would actually be a goal.”
Members of the Offutt local attributed the proposal and its “crippled'' language to the American Federation of Government Employees, the national union with which it is affiliated.
But that was emphatically denied last week by top union leaders in Washington, D.C. They traced the language's origins to a Facebook posting by a member of another local chapter, and they strongly rejected the thinking behind it.
The national union's leaders said about half the civilian defense workers they represent previously served in the military.
“It would be impossible for me to overstate the degree to which our civilian employees are invested in the mission of the Department of Defense,'' said Jacque Simon, policy director for the national union. “They are very devoted. The last thing they want to do is cripple a base.”
Offutt's local also ultimately rejected the proposal. Based on input from members, the furlough plan that union leaders will offer the base gives managers the scheduling leeway to ensure any possible furloughs don't disrupt base operations.
Amid the controversy, union leaders both here and in Washington sought to return the focus of the furlough debate to policymakers in Washington. Union leaders say it's the decision by President Barack Obama and Congress to create the budget tripwire known as sequestration and their failure to deal with budget deficits that have created the potential to cripple the nation's defenses.
“Clearly, the AFGE members want to serve the American public,'' said J. David Cox, president of the national union. “It's the members of Congress that are choosing to furlough us.”
Defense Department officials said last month that if the sequester's automatic budget cuts are not reversed they will furlough the vast majority of the department's nearly 800,000 civilian workers. The Pentagon has proposed that, beginning in late April, most civilian workers would lose one day of work per week for 22 weeks. The effect over that time would be a 20 percent cut in pay.
However, the particulars of how any furlough program would be implemented are subject to negotiations between individual bases and the local unions representing civilian employees.
To get guidance on what bargaining position members of Offutt's AFGE Local 1486 wanted to take into negotiations with base commanders, the union's leaders on Feb. 28 sent the email in question.
The email indicated that the AFGE national had encouraged all locals to present their bases a proposal that all employees take their 22 work days consecutively over a month's time. That would allow them to apply for unemployment for the month, easing the burden of the cut in pay.
It added: “All employees that are to be furloughed will take the time together (i.e. September 1-30). By proposing this, it will show that without the Civilian Employees, the Base will be crippled.''
The email went on to say that leaders of the Offutt local planned “on standing strong for the 22 consecutive days. This will at least allow for some unemployment compensation to lessen the impact.”
But they added the proposal was not set in stone and encouraged members to offer input.
Among some members, the proposal was not well-received.
On Wednesday, Clarke, a 20-year Air Force veteran who has worked as a civilian at the base for eight years, stood up in a meeting of Offutt's local and objected to the email's suggestion that Offutt workers should try to cripple the base.
“The union should not be about this,'' he said. “Our local is better than that. ... You can't cripple our country.''
He went on to say the union would look bad if word of the proposal ever got out. What he didn't know was that it already had. One member had already sent it to Terry, and a World-Herald reporter had also obtained a copy.
Julie Sheehan, the vice president of the Offutt local who sent the email, told Clarke during the meeting that he had made a “very good point'' with his objection. She noted she had cut and pasted the wording of the proposal directly from national union guidance.
But while Sheehan said it was a national proposal, national union leaders are unequivocal that it is not. Simon said it was never an AFGE proposal, nor was it ever discussed or floated within group. She said the national union was completely unaware of the language until receiving an inquiry from The World-Herald.
She said the union was able to track its origins to a Facebook posting by a union member who is not even a leader in his local. While the poster represented it as an AFGE proposal, Simon said, the poster does not speak for the national union — nor do the Offutt local leaders who subsequently circulated it.
After the newspaper inquiry, Simon said leaders of the Offutt union on Friday were “told in no uncertain terms that this kind of idea and language is out of bounds. ... In fact, we repudiate it in the strongest possible terms.''
Simon said she could not share AFGE's official guidance to the unions on furloughs because it would reveal the union's bargaining strategy in upcoming negotiations.
She said the guidance does suggest locals seek the ability for individual employees to choose to take their furlough days all at once if it would make it easier for them to obtain alternative employment. But it also includes procedures that recognize management's right to deny certain requests to preserve the mission of the base, Simon said.
A spokesman for Terry said the congressman was relieved to learn the proposal was not the official policy of the AFGE.
Sheehan could not be reached for comment on her later discussions with the national AFGE. But in an interview days earlier, after Clarke raised his objections, she agreed “we should have been better than that'' and not offered it as a possible bargaining position for the Offutt union.
“People here don't want to cripple the department,'' she said.
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