A man in a navy blue suit and yellow tie stands and speaks at a podium with the U.S. Capitol dome in the background

Randy Erwin fights for unionized federal employees whose agencies are chronically understaffed

Erwin, who earned a dual degree at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, has led the National Federation of Federal Employees for nearly two decades

The Johns Hopkins Changemakers Profile is a monthly feature spotlighting the impact of Johns Hopkins alumni in positions of influence in Washington, D.C., policymaking circles.

As Congress and President Joe Biden have struggled over the last three years to recruit and retain federal wildland firefighters at a time when their vital services are increasingly in demand, union leader Randy Erwin has represented the workers at the bargaining table and in the media.

As president of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), Erwin made it clear the stakes were monumental as many of the nation's nearly 19,000 federal firefighters are leaving the dangerous job owing to poor pay and working conditions just as stronger, longer wildfire seasons are destroying more land and homes than ever.

"Recruitment and retention in [Western states] will go from difficult to impossible, which would significantly jeopardize our nation's ability to fight wildfires and protect communities," Erwin told National Public Radio last summer when salary supplements for the nation's firefighters were approved as a temporary remedy.

With those gains set to expire in September, Erwin is again out in front of the issue, capturing the consequences in a June statement with two words: "Mass exodus."

"They will leave the workforce if they are not paid what they deserve," said Erwin, a Johns Hopkins University dual master's degree holder in business and government. "These brave men and women risk their lives to protect our public lands and communities during wildfires and other national emergencies, but Congress has yet to give them a permanent living wage."

Occupation: President, National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE)
Age: 44
Hometown: Miami, Florida
Education: Johns Hopkins, MBA/MA, 2012; Georgetown University, MA in Public Policy, 2007; BA in Business Administration, 2001.

As president of the union that represents about 10,000 of those firefighters and 100,000 other U.S. employees, Erwin has been fighting for 22 years to improve the lives of those who make government function every day—despite being repeatedly vilified in political dialogue as inefficient and overpaid.

"Federal employees are not given the respect that they deserve," Erwin said. "All of these people are performing extremely valuable services to the American people. Federal employees are paid 24% less on average nationally than people in the private sector in similar positions."

"Federal employees are not given the respect that they deserve. All of these people are performing extremely valuable services to the American people."
Randy Erwin
President, National Federation of Federal Employees

To succeed in his position, Erwin must maintain cordial bipartisan relationships with Democrats and Republicans alike even when doing so can be politically tricky. In 2018 and 2019, Erwin went on CNN multiple times to be critical but fair to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell for not bringing a spending bill to the floor that would have ended a federal government shutdown.

His tempered approach allowed him to ask for and receive McConnell's help later to help save the Civilian Conservation Corps that President Trump had proposed cutting.

"I got out there publicly to thank McConnell," Erwin said. "I took a lot of criticism for that. I did it because he did the right thing for us. If we don't thank those who stick their necks out for us, why would they do it again? We call balls and strikes fairly."

Erwin is situated better than most to make such calls. He arrived at Georgetown University in 1997 on a baseball scholarship and a desire to play in the majors. As a left-handed starting pitcher from Miami, Erwin fulfilled his promise—he was team captain, earned All-American honors, and was projected to be selected in the MLB Draft.

But an arm injury derailed his hopes to play professionally just a month before he graduated with a bachelor's degree in business administration.

"I was hoping my baseball career would pan out," Erwin said.

Instead, he lined up a job at a consulting company that was set to start after the summer of his 2001 graduation. That allowed him to travel across Europe. When he returned, however, the job had been eliminated before he ever started and the busted technology bubble left him struggling to find work.

He used a temp agency that placed him at the NFFE. His interview date: Sept. 11, 2001.

"I was on my way in when I got a phone call not to come in," he said. The union hired him a week later to answer phones at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

As he was working and getting a master's degree in liberal studies focused on public policy from Georgetown, Erwin was promoted to director of legislative affairs. The position required him to maintain working relationships with the White House, federal agencies, the media, members of Congress, and their staff.

He decided to expand his education by pursuing a dual degree from Johns Hopkins: an MBA from the Carey Business School and an MA in government from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "That program was tailor made for me," he said. "It took me almost four years to get all the credits, but the education has been invaluable to my career."

The business degree empowered him to better manage the financial aspects of the union.

After stints as executive director and the national secretary-treasurer, he was elected in December 2016 as one of the youngest presidents in NFFE's history.

Erwin said he strives to highlight the vital role federal employees play in keeping the United States functioning. They work in critical roles, such as the 50,000 union members in the Department of Defense that keep military equipment ready to deploy, or those who care for American veterans in VA hospitals.

"Yet there is this myth that a majority of federal employees are bureaucrats sitting in Washington," he said. "The reality is that 15% of employees are located in the Maryland, Virginia, D.C. region while 85% are spread out across every congressional district in the nation."

Marty Walsh, the former U.S. Department of Labor secretary for President Biden and Boston mayor, worked with Erwin to secure wage boosts for federal firefighters last year.

"He does an amazing job representing his membership," Walsh said. "He's a strong and tenacious labor leader."

His efforts have clearly attracted more members. The number of dues-paying members grew nearly 9% in 2022, he said. Erwin said Congress and the White House need to know that the trend of "nickel and diming" federal employees has left vital U.S. departments chronically understaffed.

"We have to pay people fairly or we're not going to have a government that serves the American people in the way they deserve," he said. "These critical services are going to break down, and that keeps me up at night."