New US Ambassador Is A Union Defender

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Meet John Berry, the Obama administration's quirky new appointment as Australian ambassador! He wears daggy knitted jumpers, and has both a mountain in Antarctica and a lion named after him! We know all this from his impeccably naff introduction video, which was reported by the nation’s press this week.

Here's what you won't read about Berry: As director of the Office of Personnel Management (the central HR department for the US civil service) he was a strong advocate for public sector unions, even as he was being crushed between Obama's attempts to cut the enormous US deficit, and the attacks of anti-labour ideologues in the hostile Republican-dominated US Congress. In other words, Berry was handed the biggest turd sandwich in the US and managed to make a decent meal of it, while keeping a smile on his face.

Tony Abbott’s Government has already started its attack on the public service, playing straight from the classic Republican playbook: going after public sector unions and the labour rights of public servants under the banner of efficiency and balanced budgets. One example during Berry’s term, proposed reforms to the US Postal Service, is a good example of how this type of politics plays out.

In 2011, the USPS announced it needed to cut 120,000 jobs on top of attrition (for a total of 220,000) and shift workers off federal government health and benefits plans. Much like Australia Post, the USPS isn't financially viable on its own now that people aren't mailing as many letters. It is also perpetually at risk of defaulting on a requirement to fund billions of dollars of retiree benefits in advance, a burden private companies in the US don’t have to shoulder. 

"To restore the Postal Service to financial viability, it is imperative that we have the ability to reduce our workforce rapidly," the USPS wrote in a 2011 paper on "Workforce Optimisation".

The Republican solution was to introduce postal reform legislation to empower a "solvency authority" to override or terminate collective bargaining agreements – classic union busting. The proposal was not only a strike against the American Federation of Government Employees (similar to our CPSU) but would “effectively end any real ability for workers to bargain collectively”, according to the Centre for American Progress.

Berry spoke out against the proposal to Congress (albeit very diplomatically). "These are complex issues with effects that could ripple throughout government-wide health and retirement programs, and therefore require further analysis," he said.

The attacks on the USPS are ongoing. In July this year (after Berry's term ended), Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, the sponsor of the 2011 bill, used his role as Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to endorse a bill that would see mail delivered to "neighbourhood cluster boxes" rather than to the home. Private companies like FedEx enthusiastically support Issa's plan (surprise surprise!), which, while likely to be unsuccessful, is part of a larger attempt by Republicans to entrench "downsizing" as the orthodox response to the parlous state of US finances.

In response to this general trend, Berry attempted to find other ways to reform the US civil service on a tight budget and in a hostile political environment. He led Obama's 2011 attempt to introduce performance-based pay incentives, and hired more veterans, Native American and disabled employees. Benefits were extended to LGBTI employees. He also successfully winnowed down the civil service's long hiring times by simplifying applications, in an attempt to attract talented candidates.

Other measures fell flat. Student loan repayment incentives for civil servants were underutilised. He inherited a contract for RetireEz, an automated system to calculate annuities on a major backlog of retirement claims, which was abandoned, costing taxpayers millions. Berry also experimented with a flexible task-work management system, the "Results-Only Work Environment", but it was halted after a one-year trial because managers were unable to keep workers focused.

Progress on another crucial issue, paying out tens of thousands of overdue retirement benefits, was also patchy. In part, the backlog of retirement claims was due to OPM retaining an outmoded pen-and-paper system – RetireEz was meant to speed up the process. A 2011 plan to cut the average time from over 156 days to 60 didn't reach its target, because, the OPM said, there was a lack of funds for overtime work. After Obama sequestered the deficit earlier this year, overtime for processors was cut.

Thousands of federal employees are still struggling to make ends meet on insufficient interim payments while their actual payments are being calculated. That said, Berry did manage to increase the overall processing rate, during his term, the backlog of claims was cut with an aim to having them resolved by March 2014, and $40 million of fraudulent claims were taken off the books.

All this took place against the background of a wage freeze for federal employees, instigated by Obama in 2010 as an attempt to get out in front of his Republican enemies. The President was slammed by unions at the time and is only this year making noises about bringing it to an end (with a 1 per cent pay rise). 

In March Berry delivered a remarkable off-the-cuff speech to labour leaders (his term ended not long after) about the denigration of public sector workers. "We are close the edge of the cliff", he said:

"The workforce today is the same size it was when Lyndon Johnson was president, and yet we have 60 million more Americans. Don’t talk to me about efficiency … [W]e can’t hire people? [Yet we] have the Congress adopt the third year of a pay freeze. And no one sees a connection between those two points. Only in Washington."

The general state of affairs in the US public sector is so grim that in 2010 Obama had to explicitly endorse "insourcing", an attempt to delineate and restore those functions of government that shouldn't be contracted out. This was prompted in part by the Government Accountability Office chalking up "evidence of corruption and dysfunction that would rival any stereotype of the shiftless, paper-pushing bureaucrat". 

US Investigation Services (now USIS), the largest contractor working for OPM and other agencies, is one example. USIS was actually OPM's investigative arm before being sold off in 1996, as part of "reforms" by Democrat Presidential-flop-turned-climate-change-saviour Al Gore. USIS sucks up 67 per cent of OPM's annual contractor budget but attracts little oversight from the department itself. In 2011 they signed a fresh five-year agreement, worth $2.45 billion. USIS surveils and performs background checks on federal employees, and is currently under investigation for systematic performance failures. The highest profile mistake was the lax check performed on one Edward Snowden

Again, as Berry pointed out in testimony to Congress on security clearance reform, the policy environment following the 11 September World Trade Centre attacks produced this situation.  He inherited another backlog – overdue security assessments – from the Bush years. Transparency activists will cringe, but he met stringent targets by increased mechanisation and computerisation.

Compared to Australia, the political environment in the US is awful for defenders of organised labour, let alone the public sector. But in the face of widespread cuts under the Coalition, it’s worth taking stock of the popular cliche that public servants are bludgers who couldn’t make it in the private sector; this is the very place where the Right drives a wedge into progressive politics.

“Public service matters, and God help the Republic the day that that is no longer a true statement,” Berry said in his off-the-cuff speech in March.

One would hope that Australia’s senior bureaucrats, union leaders and parliamentarians of all stripes who value the expertise of our own public service would say as much. As the journalist Jason Miller wrote, “the biggest, and maybe most impactful, part of Berry's job has been to play cheerleader, motivator and staunchest defender of the federal workforce”.

The head of LIUNA, the Labourers' International Union of North America, which boasts 500,000 members, agreed:

"John Berry has been a strong supporter of federal workers over his entire career … [He] has been a tireless advocate for the dedicated public servants who work for the federal government."

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