Ellison backs DoD’s civilian employees in fight against furloughs

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison

Plans to furlough 800,000 civilian employees in the Department of Defense will put the nation’s economic recovery – and its military readiness – at risk, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison said yesterday during a fiery speech to more than 100 members of the American Federation of Government Employees.

AFGE’s Defense Conference, which represents more than 270,000 civilian DoD employees, held meetings in Bloomington this week. Talks focused on how to beat back the 14-day furlough, scheduled to begin in June and run through September.

Ellison told workers their best strategy is reaching out to other groups resisting “the growing movement to take the public sector and weaken it.” He singled out letter carriers’ fight to maintain Saturday mail delivery, as well as efforts to prevent the privatization of Social Security.

“I want you to think of the larger frame of what’s going on,” the 5th District DFLer said. “If all you focus on is that furlough, we won’t be able to reach out to the thousands of other people being affected by the same thing.”

“We’ve got allies out there… We’ve got to see the connections.”

The furloughs are part of the Pentagon’s plan to meet spending targets required by sequestration, the automatic federal budget cuts that went into effect after Congress failed to meet deficit-reduction deadlines over the winter.

AFGE President J. David Cox, who also spoke at the conference, called the furloughs “foolish and reckless,” and said they would deal a “major blow to our economy felt by every American citizen. When 800,000 workers nationwide do not get a paycheck for three weeks, it will be felt by 1.85 million merchants.”

The furloughs will save the federal government about $2.5 billion – a small fraction of the Pentagon’s total sequestration targets. A better way to achieve spending reductions, Cox said, would be to review the “massive amount of taxpayer money” paid to private-sector defense contractors.

Ellison agreed: “We’re cutting off bone and muscle on one side, and leaving fat on the other side,” he said. “Why are we cutting the people we need the most?”

AFGE members expressed concerns that furloughs would deal a major blow to employee morale and retention. Civilian employees, who earn $50,000 on average, have seen their wages frozen for the last three years.

“I hear a lot of employees say, ‘What is my future?’” said AFGE Local 1441 President George Braunreiter. “We’re losing a lot of good employees. There’s just no respect for the people doing the job.

“These people are willing to work nights and weekends. They already make a lot of sacrifices, but they do it because they like what they’re doing and get a feeling of pride that they’re providing a necessary service to their country.”

Braunreiter’s local represents more than 225 St. Paul-based employees in the Army Corps of Engineers. Many of the workers are seasonal employees stationed on the locks and dams that facilitate barge and other boat traffic on the Mississippi River.

Braunreiter said the furloughs will “put a delay on barge traffic and increase costs to the barge industry, which will be passed on to consumers.”

“These cuts don’t just affect us,” said Dusty Hawkins, president of AFGE Local 1997, which services the Air Reserve station in Minneapolis-St. Paul. “It affects our military readiness, and it affects our communities.”

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