Tony Reardon, the retiring president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), one of the country’s largest federal worker unions, got an early lesson in American government decades ago as a 14-year-old foreign exchange student in Germany.
Reardon had been in front of his high school class in the small German town of Soest, known for pumpernickel bread, about 80 miles northeast of Cologne, taking students’ questions about the United States. “‘Why is the American civil service system the marvel of the world?’ was the exact question,” and the first question, he recalled this week.
His father was a federal employee, so Reardon was a bit embarrassed “because I didn’t really know the answer to the question.”
He has long since filled that knowledge gap, and today, Reardon, 59, is preparing to leave the union next month — after 33 years, eight as its leader and 25 as an employee. The NTEU has members in 34 federal agencies, though 45 percent of employees represented by the union work for the Internal Revenue Service, meaning Reardon has had a front-row seat to the years of threats and harassment confronted by people who work for that agency.
Reardon recently sat down for an interview and then engaged in follow-up emails reflecting on his tenure, including his experience fighting Republican efforts to diminish federal civil service protections. Those attempts included several executive orders signed by President Donald Trump seeking to weaken the ability of federal unions to represent workers. Trump’s White House said the orders, which have since been reversed by President Biden, made it “easier for agencies to remove poor-performing employees and ensure that taxpayer dollars are more efficiently used.”
Federal Insider asked Reardon how he answers that question from high school now and about other issues. The interview transcript was edited for clarity and length.
Reardon: “The American civil service is absolutely a gold standard, precisely because federal employees are nonpartisan professionals who are hired based on their skills; they swear an oath to the Constitution and are committed to the missions of their agencies; they have strong due process rights and are protected from prohibited personnel actions and discrimination; and they serve their country regardless of what political party holds the White House or Congress. While it is true that the Trump administration and now other Republican candidates want to weaken or abolish those core principles and standards, I believe the American people will recognize the threat that would be to having a federal government that is staffed by experts in their fields, not partisan loyalists.” [Trump’s office did not respond to a request for comment.]
Threats and actual physical violence against the IRS have shaken the agency for years.
A man angry at the IRS crashed a small plane into an agency facility in Austin in 2010. In May, the Treasury inspector general for tax administration warned “that taxpayers and anti-government or anti-tax groups with malevolent intent may use the internet or social media to track down and identify IRS employees, their families, their homes, and personal information to threaten, intimidate, or locate them for physical violence.” In October, following the August approval of an $80 billion IRS budget boost over 10 years that included funding for new staff, another inspector general report said, “Recent incidents involving taxpayers who threatened or assaulted IRS employees underscore the dangers that these employees face … threat-related reports have rapidly increased.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) was among those who further charged the overheated political environment in August by asking on “Fox & Friends” if the IRS would “have a strike force that goes in with AK-15s already loaded, ready to shoot some small-business person in Iowa.”
Insider: What does this say about the atmosphere in which federal employees, particularly IRS employees, now work?
Reardon: Folks who are involved in politics, certainly on one side of the aisle, tend to really go after the IRS. And in so doing … kind of vilify not only the IRS, but IRS employees … That always concerns me because, number one, IRS employees, of course, are carrying out the tax laws that are put in place by Congress. And oftentimes it’s [members of] Congress … who are then going after the IRS or going after IRS employees … IRS employees feel like they have somewhat of a target on their backs … I’ve heard this countless times that when they walk outside their workplace, they will take off their badges because they don’t want people knowing that they’re IRS employees.
Insider: Why has this problem gotten worse?
Reardon: They’re reducing the amount of faith that people have in our government … It’s what happened on Jan. 6 [the 2021 insurrection] … You’ve got some very angry people who are mad about almost everything related to civil service and our government … That’s when people who work in the civil service system began to get very concerned about their well-being.
Insider: What’s the most positive thing that happened during your time as president?
Reardon: I think paid parental leave [for federal employees] has been a really positive thing for a number of reasons. We’ve got pictures from parents of their newborn children, saying how appreciative they are that there is now paid parental leave. [The Federal Employee Paid Leave Act took effect on Oct. 1, 2020.]
After Aug. 10, Reardon’s last day on the job, he plans to replace the stress of Washington with life in Bayboro, N.C., a town of 1,200 people that calls itself “A Southern Hospitality Village.” He wants to trade arguing with Congress for announcing at high school sports games. That’s what makes “my emotions sort of lift,” he said.
Reardon also gets emotional about federal civil servants.
“I’ve had the honor of seeing so many of our federal employees at work,” he said, “doing the job of the American people.”