Union leaders denounce sequestration at DC rally: ‘They want to see us bleed’

Union members took to the streets of Washington on Tuesday to denounce the automatic spending cuts from sequestration that are set to force furloughs across the federal government.

Leaders of the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) rallied workers on Capitol Hill who will likely see lost pay if the sequester takes effect.

J. David Cox, AFGE’s president, said lawmakers who have expressed a willingness to let sequestration happen are out to get federal workers.

“They want to see our red. They want to see us bleed. They just want to kill us. Death by a thousand cuts, brothers and sisters. I’m not interested in going that way. ... We have to end this sequestration madness right now,” Cox told the assembled crowd, which sported signs that said, “Sink the Sequester” and “Hands Off Our Medicare!”

Union leaders warned the budget cuts would hurt public services and create job losses across the country.

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“Sequestration is nothing but a word, nothing but a long word with a simple purpose, and that’s to hide a very bad idea that we can cut our way to prosperity,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “The American people want and need our public services.”

If the sequester isn’t reversed, $85 billion will be slashed from the federal budget in 2013, with more than $1 trillion in cuts coming over the next decade.

Under orders from the White House, federal agencies are making plans to furlough workers for a few days each month to deal with the lost funding.

Labor leaders criticized the spending cuts in strident terms on Tuesday, with one official portraying it as class warfare.

“That top one and two percent want more power. They want more wealth and at the expense of all of us. And today we stand and we are making a line in the sand and we say ‘Hell no!’ ” said Lee Saunders, AFSCME’s president.

After the rally, union members fanned out on Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers on reversing sequestration, in part by raising taxes on the wealthy.

“We clearly want to see new revenues on the table. ... We’ve already banked huge numbers of cuts. It’s time to see real revenues on the table,” said Chuck Loveless, AFSCME’s federal government affairs director. “We plan on increasing the noise on this, and we will see where this all goes.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Budget Committee, talked with union leaders as the rally dispersed. Van Hollen, who represents thousands of federal workers in his district, said government employees have suffered enough.

“We need to replace the sequester. Allowing the sequester to go into effect would be absolutely reckless economic policy,” Van Hollen told reporters.

Both parties say they want to avoid the blunt spending cuts from sequestration, but neither side has put forward a specific proposal to reverse the $85 billion that will but trimmed this year.

Senate Democrats are racing to craft legislation that would replace the across-the-board cuts with a mix of spending reductions and tax increases by the end of the week, but are running short on time to pass a bill.

House Republicans approved two bills last year to reverse sequestration, but that legislation cut far more from federal spending than the $85 billion reduction that will be triggered in March. Republican leaders in the House have no plans to bring those bills back up for a vote.

Defense hawks have pushed GOP leaders to put forward a plan to stop the cuts, fearing the impact they will have on the military. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and other lawmakers have proposed shielding the Defense Department from sequestration by paring back the federal workforce.

The AFGE has bristled at McKeon’s proposal, which would require federal agencies and departments to eliminate positions when their workers retire. On Monday, the federal government's worker union proposed an alternative that would replace sequestration with cuts in government service contracts.

The fight over furloughs is part of a broader battle between the parties over the size and pay of the federal workforce.

President Obama last week proposed raising pay for federal workers by 1 percent in 2014. That raise would come on top of a half-point pay hike, scheduled to take effect in late March, that was delayed in the "fiscal cliff" deal struck last month.

Republicans have blasted the pay increases as a waste of taxpayer money and passed legislation to stop them.

The AFGE, however, harshly criticized Obama’s 1 percent pay hike and vowed to work with lawmakers on a larger increase.

“President Obama’s proposed one percent pay adjustment for 2014 is simply not enough. It is not enough to allow federal employees to make up lost ground from two-plus years of frozen pay,” Cox said in a statement on Saturday.