Head of Top U.S. Federal Union Resigns Amid Harassment Claims

J. David Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, on Friday resigned from his position at the largest federal workers union in the U.S. amid mounting allegations of misconduct.

“I am certain that our great union will continue leading the fight against attacks on our members’ pay, benefits, retirement, and rights on the job,” AFGE’s national secretary-treasurer Everett Kelley, who is taking over Cox’s position, told staff in an email Friday announcing the change. “Even while we do that, we know that there is still work that we can do to improve our culture here at AFGE and bring about a more inclusive workplace, free from discrimination and harassment.” 

Cox took a leave of absence following an inquiry in October from Bloomberg News about claims that he’d sexually harassed current and former employees. Ten people who’ve worked for Cox said in October that they had witnessed or experienced inappropriate conduct by him. Brett Copeland, AFGE’s former communications director, said Cox stuck his tongue in his ear; Cox’s former secretary Rocky Kabir said Cox urged him to shower with him, among other claims.

In October, AFGE said Cox denied the allegations. The union also said it took the charges “very seriously” and ordered an independent investigation led by a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chair into Cox’s behavior and theculture of the union under his leadership. In the months since, more people have come forward with additional claims. This month, a member filed internal union charges alleging that, for years, Cox sexually abused her son, who was working as one of his drivers. 

Cox has not responded to inquiries about the more recent allegations. In an emailed statement in October, he said he was “truly sorry if I ever made anyone feel uncomfortable by my words or actions,” and that he trusted the independent investigation to “sort the fact from fiction.”

“Under National Secretary-Treasurer Kelley’s leadership as acting president during the past few months, the important work AFGE performs every day on behalf of the 700,000 federal and D.C. government employees we represent has continued uninterrupted,” the union said in an emailed statement. 

The independent investigators brought in by AFGE have informed the union that they plan to release their report in the coming weeks, according to people who were present at a union meeting this month. According to an AFGE spokesperson, the union’s executive council had also scheduled a March 1 meeting to consider Cox’s position, given the new sexual abuse allegations and separate claims that he violated AFGE election rules. Cox resigned ahead of those decisions. 

“This is a step forward for the labor movement,” Kabir, Cox’s former secretary, said Friday. “I’m hoping that other organizations learn from this experience.”

Cox, who in 2018 was elected to a third three-year term, is the mostprominent labor leader to be publicly accused of sexual misconduct in the last several years. People who’ve worked at AFGE say his behavior was an “open secret” that went unaddressed within the union. For years, leadership failed to deal with complaints about bullying, bias, or harassment by Cox or others, according to dozens of current and former staff and members. 

Jenny Yang, the former EEOC chair leading the independent investigation, told AFGE employees in a November email that along with the allegations against Cox, “we are also committed to a conducting a broader evaluation of culture and climate” at the union.

In November, Veterans Affairs secretary Robert Wilkie sent a letter to the union requesting “personal and public assurance” that AFGE’s secretary-treasurer would protect its members at the VA from any harassment by AFGE officials.

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