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Federal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we’re ready to get back to work

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“At some point they’re going to need you, and the country is going to need you. And I hope you’re still there.” Hillary Clinton spoke these words in September 2017, telling government workers, battered by just nine months of the Trump administration, to “stick it out, because the tide has to turn.” 

I taped her words to my office door and returned to them often in the years that followed. 

Because from my seat working at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and as a union officer with the American Federation of Government Employees, I had a firsthand look at how the Trump administration rigged rules, rolled back regulations, and handed over federal agencies to industry lobbyists. Less well known is how the administration programmatically demeaned and purged federal workers, at a huge loss to our country.

We federal employees have taken it on the chin these past four years. From the very start, President Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” put a target on rank-and-file federal employees, particularly at EPA. Career civil servants were deceptively portrayed as a “deep state,” maligning our decades of experience in government and dedication to public service as an impulse to sabotage the country we love.

Hurtling to a “point of no return” on climate change, we at EPA were forced to watch as the Trump administration twisted, dismantled, monetized — and erased — the EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment, rolling us backwards on everything from clean air protections to toxic waste clean-up, through massive budget cuts, the shuttering of research centers, and the illegal looting of our union’s collective bargaining contract. 

All the while, the politically-appointed leaders of our agency never missed a chance to publicly convey how little they thought of our work ethic, our knowledge base, and the depth and breadth of our expertise. It was an unprecedented attack, pushing us to call for an EPA workers’ bill of rights and even take a first-ever vote of no confidence in our leadership over their mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But I am still here and so are thousands of my co-workers. After four long years, we’re ready for an administration that understands federal workers are not the enemy — we are the backbone of our country.

Mr. President-elect, I am glad you are back. I am thrilled Vice President-elect Harris is at your side. It’s also good to see familiar faces in the transition and considered for top spots in the next administration. But we need to talk, and soon — because the lasting impact of workplace abuse and the tactical dismantling of our government agencies requires a clear and forceful rejection and healing.

How then do we get off on the right foot from Day One?

The difference will be in whether your administration adopts a top-down, “we know what is best” approach that imposes its ideas, however good, on workforces like at EPA, or instead, treats staff as partners, intellectual peers, trusting and including the perspective of EPA scientists and engineers in your administration’s plans. Just as we are the experts in climate change and how the federal government works, we are also the experts in how the administration has made swiss cheese of rules and regulations — and how to build it back, better.

Advancing climate changes solutions isn’t as simple as reimposing the over a hundred environmental rules that have been rolled back these past four years. That’s why you’ll need us federal workers as experts at the table to help build our agency back up, and we’re ready to get started.

Mr. President-elect, this is our moment to turn the tide. You have announced an exciting and innovative strategy to save our planet from climate change, hold corporate bad-actors accountable, and restore the federal government to its promise. There is a lot of work to do. EPA workers are up for the challenge and waiting to get started. But first – see us, listen to us, earn our trust. Help us help you. When we are able to safely walk back into the office, I’ll be happy to take Secretary Clinton’s words off my door.

Joyce Howell is vice president of AFGE Local 3631.

Tags Donald Trump federal workers Hillary Clinton

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