Labor chief faces challenges as advocate for federal workers

For 13 years, Colleen Kelley has served as one of Washington’s leading advocates for federal workers.

As president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), Kelley has had a hand in every major deficit negotiation of the last year. She has tangled with the Tea Party and gone up against GOP standard-bearers Reps. Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Paul Ryan (Wis.). She represents everyone’s favorite: the tax collectors.

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Her job has never been tougher.

“This is the worst political climate for federal workers in decades,” Kelley told The Hill in an interview at her H Street headquarters. “You see these current attacks, they’re nonstop. Literally everyday there’s a new one aimed at federal employees.”

Kelley is now tracking two dozen bills in Congress aimed at reducing worker pay and benefits, the highest she has seen since joining NTEU in the 1970s as a worker at the IRS.

House Republicans have proposed five-year pay freezes, 5 percent increases in employee contributions to retirement plans and the requirement that two workers leave before one is hired. They have argued that federal worker pay is too generous and guaranteed pensions unaffordable, given a $16 trillion national debt. 

Half of Kelley’s time is spent traveling the country, comforting frightened members of her union, most of whom work outside the Beltway. Fear was especially high last year when the government almost shut down due to a budget battle and workers worried they would lose pay. 

“It is very hard for them to understand why these attacks keep coming. They know they work hard; they are proud of what they do; they are dedicated,” she said.

Kelley is passionate when talking about the contribution that people can make when choosing to work for the government. She still thinks young people should go into the bureaucracy to “make a difference.” 

Kelley’s office is filled with Sept. 11 memorials given to her by members working for the Department of Homeland Security. 

“I think a lot of federal employees do their work under the radar. The country depends on them to do it without a lot of fanfare. They just expect them to do it,” she said. 

“A lot of this hostile legislation very often comes from those who don’t respect federal employees and what they do. They just want less federal employees and they want to turn that work over to contractors at a much higher price,” she said.

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To keep the enthusiasm to cut worker benefits in check, Kelly is trying to make her members more popular. 

That can be especially hard when your members are tax collectors.

“It just goes with the nature of what they do,” she said of the public disdain. “I guess if you are getting a refund you might have a bit of a different experience with them.

“Some people just have an initial reaction to IRS rather than thinking about what they do,” she added. “If they think about some agency that they really like and really need, like the National Park Service or the FDA … if the IRS doesn’t collect the revenue and you depend on those services, they can’t do that.” 

Kelley ticks off a list of close allies in Congress; at the top of the all-Democrat list are House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (Md.).

“There is no doubt that when we look at the implications of various budget proposals, we seek her input,” Van Hollen, who served on last year’s debt supercommittee and the earlier Biden deficit talks, told The Hill. 

“Federal civilian employees, whether or not they are members of NTEU, have no more effective or able champion than Colleen Kelley,” Hoyer said. 

To understand what makes Kelley tick, you have to first understand that she is from Pittsburgh. 

“I have been here for 23 years now and when I travel on airplanes inevitably I get a talker and they ask where I’m from and I always say Pittsburgh,” she said. “I will never be from D.C.”

She goes home about once a month.

“It’s 240 miles door to door and I can drive it blindfolded,” she said. 

Like most Yinzers, Kelley is a Steelers fanatic. And her office features a large drawing of Forbes Field, the former home of the Pirates that used to be a quick walk from her house.

“I was a big baseball fan when [Roberto] Clemente played,” she said. “Then they tore down Forbes Field and went to a bigger stadium, and it just kind of lost something.”

Kelley has a large family back in the ’Burgh. 

Twenty-nine family members came out to celebrate when Kelley became NTEU vice president in 1995.

Unionism runs in Kelley’s family. Her father, now deceased, was a Teamster and a truck driver. A photo of her parents occupies a place of honor to the right of her desk.

Still, Kelley said, when she joined the IRS as an accountant she did not intend to become a union leader. Unaccountable managers convinced her to take action.

“You see injustices and things that are unfair,” she said.

Since winning election in 1999 as president, the last time she ran unopposed, Kelley said her greatest achievements involved working with the Bush administration to stop the outsourcing of IRS collection activities and getting customs and border agents to choose NTEU as their union when Homeland Security was created.  

A membership setback came last year when the Transportation Security Agency decided to go with the rival American Federation of Government Workers as its union of choice.

Another tough one was the 2010 imposition of a two-year pay freeze for federal workers that President Obama signed off on and an increase in pension contributions for new hires used to pay for the extension of unemployment insurance in February.

“I made clear my dissatisfaction and disagreement with that action,” Kelley said of the pay freeze when asked if Obama had betrayed her members. “We have worked hard over the last two years in an effort to have the administration support that the pay freeze needs to end and they have been very public and very clear that the pay freeze needs to end.”

So far NTEU has not endorsed Obama for reelection, but it is clear Kelley views GOP candidate Mitt Romney as worse. Romney’s economic plan suggests slashing federal compensation by up to 40 percent.

“What he and others never talk about is how they are going to get the work done that the public depends on,” she said. 

Out on the road, Kelley tells members to pressure their elected officials.

“I tell them everything about the working life of a federal employee is decided by someone who is elected,” she said. “The upcoming year will be very important and the upcoming election will determine whether it will be another two years or four years until [the climate for federal workers] changes.”