One provision in the code of ethics for government employees states that “any person in government service should put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons, party, or government department.” Lately some young government workers have begun to take that statement seriously, thereby causing disorder in the normal bureaucratic processes. The issues they are raising are in some cases on the order of employees’ rights, or job discrimination within the government, or the serving of grapes in government cafeterias. But the reformers are also trying to change the bureaucracies’ concepts of who their real constituents are (students, not the National Education Association; miners, not mining companies), and bureaucrats’ view of the public interest, the Vietnam War, and the disorder in national priorities. More fundamentally, the idea is to change the government workers’ view of themselves. “The code of ethics holds the interest of the people above the interest of the agency,” says one of the young dissenters. “We throw this back at people all the time, but for the most part it’s as if it never existed.”
Roy Morgan is a thirty-three-yearold Health, Education, and Welfare Department employee who has become the leader of a government union local there. “We are challenging,” he says, “the mythical restrictions that federal employees have no right to challenge or criticize the policies or programs of the agencies. It’s never been said, but employees feel that way. We feel we should be able to challenge the policies and programs. That’s the core of it. You have so many dead-head bureaucrats who sit there year after year and do things they know are wrong, but they don’t say anything, because they are deadened and frightened.”
Most agencies do have rules against actions that would “embarrass” the agency, but these are of dubious force or legality, and few federal employees are even aware of them. “I can’t help feeling,” said Mike Tabor, another young organizer at HEW, “that the discussion groups and the challenges and the suits have freed up people who would be Eichmanns. The Eichmannesque quality of federal employment is the most dangerous thing—you don’t question the President, you don’t question the boss. The 1950s liberals suggest we leave. They believe you should work quietly, and you should quit if you’re upset. They say you should work until you get to the top, and then you have real influence. Of course, you’re dehumanized by then.”
Dissent within the government takes various forms. The dissenters are very fragmented and also very anxious that the distinctions among them be understood. Some are working through unions, some through a year-and-a-half-old organization called Federal Employees for a Democratic Society, some through discussion groups within agencies, some simply through a loose network of a few people throughout the government who keep in touch with each other and join together to work on specific issues. The war has been the major catalyst, but not the only one. The revolt of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division lawyers last summer over the Administration’s languorous desegregation policies is the best known specific action. One lawyer who was especially active in working up a petition of protest was fired, and at least one other has quit. A number of others have concluded that they can have no effect on the Administration’s civil rights policy, and are preparing to leave; some will try to work for civil rights organizations outside the government. While the Justice Department lawyers’ action is formally unrelated to the other protests that are brewing, and while their dissatisfaction was particularly exacerbated by the change in Administrations, it was nonetheless unprecedented. The striking facts are that there is so much willingness throughout the government to challenge accepted ways, and that there are so many government workers still around willing to make the challenges.
Most of them are young white middle-class professionals; many have graduate degrees. They are more secure than their senior colleagues who came into the government some time back, more able to take or leave their jobs. Some of them came in during the Kennedy and early Johnson years, when the domestic programs were expanding, and there was optimism; some are still coming in, though in decreasing numbers, to work on problems they care about, such as poverty and pollution. Others are more militant, don’t believe in federal programs, but frankly work for the government because it still offers decent pay and also time and an opportunity for extracurricular organizing.
The core of the activity is in the agencies dealing with social programs, such as HEW and the Office of Economic Opportunity (the poverty program), but in varying degrees, it is all about: in the Interior Department and the Agriculture Department; in the Civil Rights Commission, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and, despite the strenuous efforts of its officials to thwart it, the Civil Service Commission. It is in the Labor Department and the Post Office Department; in the Peace Corps, the Agency for International Development and, in its own style, the State Department; in the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and even the Federal Reserve Board, where employees have organized to discuss the war and its effect on the nation’s economy. There are a few dissenters at the Pentagon, particularly in the Navy. One lonely and intrepid soul stood outside the Census Bureau on Moratorium Day, even after receiving a written warning; one girl at the Central Intelligence Agency signed an anti-Vietnam War petition. But for the most part there is little known dissent at the CIA, or at the FBI. There has been a substantial increase in activity at the National Institutes of Health, spurred by the guilt of some young Public Health Service doctors who feel that their two-year government service amounts to draft evasion. Their numbers were increased by the attempts of their superiors to prevent them from hearing a speech given by Dr. Benjamin Spock on the October Moratorium Day.
It all began a little over two years ago, when a group of HEW employees began meeting on Thursdays, over paper-bag lunches, at a town house a couple of blocks from the HEW building, to talk over issues with higher HEW officials or outsiders. “We talked about the need to communicate within HEW,” said Tabor, one of the organizers of the Thursday discussion group, “and also the need to know more about what is happening outside our own bureaucracy. John Gardner was Secretary at that time, and he was calling for people to get involved and ask questions. We had seventy to eighty people fitting into that town house. After a while, we were invited to meet in a room in HEW. People from other agencies began to come to it, and now they have organized a similar thing at about twelve different agencies.
“It was a very beautiful thing when one day we had the head of the Social and Rehabilitation Service [the welfare agency] there, and a secretary said, ‘I came off welfare and I’m working for you and I’m still in poverty. What’s the sense of that?’ Wilbur Cohen came twice. We said to him, ‘We talk about new careers and paraprofessionals. What about this Department? Do we take dropouts? The personnel people are idiots. Why don’t you do something?' ”
The closest thing to a direct confrontation over policy came at the end of 1967, when Congress was in the process of passing a law placing a freeze on the number of people who could be on welfare, and requiring all welfare recipients to work. Out of the HEW Thursday lunch group there evolved a statement to Gardner demanding that he repudiate the congressional amendments, and stating that if the amendments became law, the hundred-odd signers would find it very difficult to enforce them. Since few of the signers worked in the welfare administration, this was more a signal of intensity of feeling than a real threat. Gardner did not tell the protesters when he met with them that he was at that very time fighting with President Johnson over the welfare amendments, trying, over White House objections, to get the Administration to take a position against them. Nevertheless, the group, said Tabor, found Gardner “very impressive. We were impressed with his integrity,” and the majority of the group decided not to release the statement.
Gardner, for his part, was one of those rare government officials who welcomed the emergence of a group of younger bureaucrats who worried over issues and fought them out of channels. When he publicly praised them as a “secondary nervous system,” the senior welfare administrators were shocked all the way down to their sensible shoes. When Gardner resigned from the government shortly thereafter, and it became known that the welfare amendments and the war and its effects on HEW spending were the issues between him and the President, the young bureaucrats were pleased with him and wrote and told him so. They wished, however, that he had publicly stated that these were the issues over which he was resigning. But nobody does that. They hardly ever even resign at all.
In February, 1968, four government employees from various departments organized a petition of Federal Employees Against the War in Vietnam. “From our position,” it said, “we have seen how the purpose and energy of government are drained by preoccupation with the making of war. ... We fear the political and moral consequences for the future of our country. All this, together with the tragic and unnecessary suffering of the Vietnamese people, has troubled our conscience and now compels us to speak out to colleagues and fellow citizens.”About two thousand people signed it; not, for sure, a very high percentage of the federal work force, but the largest number of federal employees within memory to speak out on any issue and to risk what bureaucrats fear most—visibility.
The antiwar petition brought forth a number of other people who wished to remain active and provided them with a list of names, and led to the formation of the Federal Employees for a Democratic Society. Madeleine Golde, twentyseven, one of the founders of FEDS, has a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University, and did community organizing in Philadelphia before joining HEW. She is soft-spoken and pleasant, and like the majority of her fellow activists, neither strident nor arrogant. They talk easily and, in contrast to their superiors, candidly; they dispense with such protective bureaucratic devices as talking “for background,” or “off the record.”
“We held our first organizing meetings in June of 1968,” said Miss Golde, as we sat in the cavernous HEW cafeteria. (The employees had complained about the drabness of the place, so now the steam tables are decorated with plastic parsley.) “The main purpose as we saw it was to sensitize federal employees to speak out and be active on issues and policies in their own agencies. The most important thing was to get people to be comfortable with the idea of taking up issues within their own agencies, and also recognize that there would be issues that would cut across agency lines, such as employee rights.” Miss Golde also started a monthly newsletter, the Advocate, which deals critically with HEW policies.
“It helps other people in the government to have visual, vocal groups within that do these things,” said Brian Devine, the current president of FEDS. “People make short-term compromises too much. . . . People within the government should not work within their own framework, going only to their superior. FEDS people work cross-government and extra-channels, in order to get something done; they refuse to accept the arbitrary structure of the government. FEDS is hardly a revolutionary action movement. It’s revolutionary only in the sense of urging things counter to the normal bureaucratic function of government.
“It’s a philosophy, not an organization,” he said. “It doesn’t have membership per se, but people who come to meetings. It may be a few trying to get grapes out of the HEW cafeteria [they did] or several hundred working on the Moratorium.” There was a film festival, featuring such movies as Mayor Daley and the Blue Meanies, to attract members and funds, and some three hundred people have paid dues.
Large membership isn’t FEDS’ prime objective; at least, it cannot now claim large membership. Its title is too close to that of the Students for a Democratic Society for the comfort of many employees who might otherwise have joined. A statement drafted last spring and called “The Condition of the Federal Employee and How to Change It" is reminiscent of the Port Huron Statement of the SDS (it is even referred to as the Potomac Statement) . It was not even signed by FEDS as a group, but by a few individuals such as Tabor, his wife, Martha, who works at OEO, Madeleine Golde, and nine others. The rhetoric is strong—“The powerful corporate interests and their political allies are not eager to have imaginative or independently minded Government workers’—and it urges tactics like “sensitivity encounters" with bureau chiefs, refusal to carry out policies resulting from “illegitimate authority,” refusal to participate in programs which are “unjust or immoral.” It suggests “creative job losing,” or getting oneself publicly fired over issues of conscience. It suggests “vigorous disobedience,” such as the work slowdown caused when the Professional Air Traffic Controllers “worked by the book” (this is an example talked about a great deal) . Several thousand copies of the Potomac Statement were printed and distributed. “A lot of people got nervous about signing it,” said Martha Tabor.
“They were getting pressured.”
“A lot of people said it was a New Left document,” said her husband. “It wasn’t New Left—maybe New Left, 1963. People link it with the union and FEDS and the Thursday discussion groups as if there is a potential solid movement. There isn’t.”
This becomes entirely clear in conversations with the various activists. While some are nervous about FEDS’ leftist aura, others write the group off as still trapped in liberalism. Some are anxious for more direct confrontations over policy. FEDS was in fact fairly moribund for many months last year, in search of an issue until the Moratorium came along. There was a petition against the ABM, and a vigil as well; there was support for the Poor People’s March, and some thought was given to opposing the annual and rather overbearing government drive for employees to buy U.S. Savings Bonds, and to sponsor instead a new urban development bond, but that fell through. The dissenters have tried to show connections between the war and what their own agencies are or are not doing. But meanwhile the young activists did not act while the civil rights guidelines were being undone in HEW, or social programs were being mauled. There has also been a turning in, to concern for their own rights, to some extent a reaction to the harassment from superiors.
While some of the young dissenters have been patted on the head and told that their concern was welcome, the more normal result has been increased surveillance of how they spend their time and whom they telephone; there are many pointed suggestions that it they don’t like the way things are, they should get out, reminders that now they work for President Nixon and they should support him. Civil servants are not appointed by and do not work for the President personally; that is the point of a Civil Service. But this Administration has been especially careless about that fact. Many government employees supposedly protected by the nonpartisan Civil Service have been asked their political affiliation before being given a new job. If the answer was wrong, some did not get the job.
An Agriculture Department employee watched while a Moratorium poster was dramatically ripped from his office walls, and he was told it would be used against him. A State Department employee who managed to get an announcement of the Department employees’ first luncheon discussion meeting published in the regular Department newsletter was shortly and no one thinks coincidentally transferred to Iran. FEDS is becoming a bit of a mirror of the bureaucracy it protests; position papers are taking longer and longer to get more and more clearances. There have been self-criticism sessions, where they have explored their “relevance” and talked about their “elitism.”
All sides agree that the unions form the one group with any sort of power base. By the time Roy Morgan of the HEW union local joined the government, he had kicked around the country holding down odd jobs for ten years, and finally, at twenty-nine, put himself through college. During that time, he learned something about union organizing, and after participating in HEW’s discussion groups and FEDS, saw the unions as “a more permanent structure for political and social activities.” Morgan and his colleagues are to the traditional government unions what Walter Reuther is to the AFL-CIO; the government unions had done their work on the traditional issues of wage levels and benefits, but were disinterested in social action.
Morgan and some co-workers joined the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest and most powerful of the government unions and, in a short time, have taken over the then largely defunct HEW local. There are now aggressive locals in some of the other social agencies, and five of them have joined together in a “Washington Caucus.” Local 41 at HEW has now grown from sixty members to about four hundred, a large proportion of them blacks in low civil service grade jobs.
It has tried to combat racial discrimination in federal employment, and to show the extent of the discrimination, published a report prepared by government officials at the end of the Johnson Administration and impounded thereafter by the Civil Service Commission. The report pointed out that while 9.7 percent of government employees are “members of the minority,” only 1.6 percent of them are in the betterpaying professional or supervisory jobs. It blamed “unrealistic prerequisites,” personnel officers (“the dregs of the federal government”), and the Civil Service Commission. The union has also sued the government to prevent the Public Health Service from moving its offices to the suburbs, on the grounds there would not be sufficient housing and transportation facilities for black employees. Labor Department employees, to their own amazement, had succeeded in stopping a similar move. It also supported the grape boycott, demonstrated against low welfare payments, and supported Moratorium activities. It will try to secure the right for employees to picket their own agencies, on the employees’ time, to protest certain policies and eventually attempt to secure the right to strike.
The Foreign Service and dissent have long been contradictory terms, and therefore that there is ferment at all in Foggy Bottom is somewhat remarkable. There is now a discussion group at the State Department, and younger employees of State, the Agency for International Development, and the United States Information Agency have devised committees, called Open Forum Panels, for discussing issues with higher officials out of channels. A group of young Foreign Service Officers two years ago won control of the American Foreign Service Association, and with that as a base have been pushing for reform of the Foreign Service. Their main concerns, however, are the personnel and promotion systems of the Service, not the nature of foreign policy. They feel that it would not be within the proprieties of the Foreign Service to criticize the Vietnam War.
Only a handful
Nicholas Oganovic, fifty-seven, is the executive director of the Civil Service Commission, a man of great power and influence over the condition of the federal employee. He is the most important career official of the Civil Service Commission, the one who stays when Administrations change. His attitudes and deeds influence personnel policies throughout the government. The Commission has been about the hardest agency in dealing with its own dissenters—it has denied, for example, use of its building for discussion groups. The dissenters throughout the government see the Civil Service Commission as the ultimate bureaucracy, and Nicholas Oganovic as the ultimate bureaucrat. A conversation with Mr. Oganovic suggests how wide is the distance, and deep the misunderstanding, between him and the young dissenters.
I asked him what he felt about employees speaking out on government policies. “As long as they’re doing it within the law, and each agency has its own code of ethics, and they separate their work and don’t use data or information which they get as employees, I can’t stop them from joining FEDS.”But what about the argument that federal employees should speak out about policies they feel to be wrong? “I’d like to know who is saying that. They’re kids. This is what they say, that people in my role and higher than me should be speaking out. My position is simple. If I don’t like the policy of the President or the agency, I express myself through channels. Once that policy has been approved, it’s up to me to carry it out. If it’s so repugnant to me that I can’t change it legitimately, I can’t go to Congress, I resign. The federal structure is such that every agency has informal grievance procedures and regular grievance procedures, and we have a law that permits every employee to make any kind of suggestion.
“Let’s put this in proper perspective,”he said. “We are talking about a very very small percentage of federal employees, and I know them all. It’s the same thing I observe when I go to colleges and universities. They’re only a handful, and I don’t lose a moment of sleep over it.
“I don’t think the end of the war is going to stop it,”he went on. “God hoping, the war should have been over a long time ago. They’ll pick on something else. There was a certain class of people in the thirties who behaved just like these people. The Communist Party was trying to organize these kids, but I don’t think that exists here. It may be here and there, but I’d be the last to say that these kids would knowingly be pawns.”
Mr. Oganovic takes serious offense at the charges that his agency has not done enough to promote equal employment within the government. “I’ve been working like a dog,” he says. “I spoke out the other day. I spoke out on equal employment. Nobody in this country has given such a strong speech as I have. Now I want some of these people, especially the Negroes in the government, to help the more disadvantaged get a fair shake.” He spoke of new tests that had been designed for the disadvantaged who wanted to enter the civil service at the lowest grades, and for returning Vietnam veterans.
I asked him how many minority people were in high-level civil service jobs. “That’s a naïve question,” he remonstrated. “I’m not going to promote a woman or a Negro for showcase purposes. People say we don’t have any Negroes in supergrades in the Civil Service Commission. What they don’t say is, what opportunities did you offer blacks in GS-15? I’ve got a Negro secretary out there—top-notch gal.
“I do want to make it crystal clear,” he concluded as I started to leave, “that the young people in our country are dedicated and loyal and motivated to improve our society and the government. The kids who go off the reservation in our government are a handful. I’ll bet you couldn’t name ten of them.”
-ELIZABETH B. DREW