AFSA and the Evolution of the Foreign Service Career


AFSA and the modern Foreign Service were founded within a few months of each other in 1924. During the intervening century, the Foreign Service has undergone dramatic changes as an institution and a career. This article examines the role that AFSA—as a professional association and, later, as a union—played in that evolution.

Early Years

In its first four decades, AFSA was primarily a social club dedicated to fellowship. It deferred to State Department management to look after the Foreign Service and its members. The masthead of AFSA’s American Foreign Service Journal (as it was then named) declared that articles “aimed to influence legislative, executive, or administrative action … are rigidly excluded.”

That outlook changed briefly in the mid-1940s as AFSA provided substantial input into what became the Manpower Act of 1946 and Foreign Service Act of 1946. But in and after 1947, AFSA fell mostly silent as Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) and his allies demanded and obtained the firing of hundreds of alleged security risks at the Department of State.

During the 1950s through the mid-1960s, AFSA rarely differed with department management on Foreign Service issues. In fact, several AFSA presidents were part of management as they concurrently filled senior positions such as deputy under secretary for political affairs.

From Passivity to Activism

In 1967, a new generation of AFSA leaders began to transform the organization from passivity to activism. Seeing AFSA as the leading advocate for the Foreign Service, they sought to influence the State Department, White House, and Congress to improve the Foreign Service as an institution and career.

They issued a nearly 200-page reform manifesto, “Toward a Modern Diplomacy,” containing numerous recommendations to improve personnel policies, training, and benefits. And they created a Members’ Interests Committee that pushed the department to adopt or expand benefits, including an educational allowance covering kindergarten and improving overtime pay for Foreign Service specialists.

In negotiations with agency management, AFSA focuses on the long-term institutional well-being of the career Foreign Service.

In the face of determined State Department opposition, AFSA played a leading role in the creation of the Foreign Service grievance system. Previously, employees had no mechanism to seek redress for unfair treatment by the personnel system. After legislation co-drafted by AFSA to create a grievance system was introduced in the Senate in 1971, the department headed off its enactment by including a provision directing the creation of a grievance process in an executive order signed by President Richard Nixon. But after the department held out for implementing procedures that severely limited the new grievance board’s authority, AFSA and others continued to press for legislation, which finally passed in 1975, establishing the Foreign Service Grievance Board.

AFSA’s transformation to activism was completed in 1973 when Foreign Service members voted for the association to become a union. Formally certified as the exclusive representative of Foreign Service members at State, the U.S. Information Agency, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), AFSA gained authority to negotiate with foreign affairs agencies for the interests of its members.

AFSA’s senior officers became federal union officials with freedom to lobby Congress and speak to the media without obtaining executive branch approval, although it was not until 1982 that the Department of State funded a position for AFSA’s elected president, allowing the incumbent, then Dennis Hays, to work at AFSA full-time. Later, the same arrangement came to apply to AFSA vice presidents representing State, USAID, the Foreign Commercial Service, and the Foreign Agricultural Service.

Voice of the Foreign Service

As both the professional association and union for the Foreign Service, AFSA began to refer to itself as the “voice of the Foreign Service.” That characterization first appeared in The Foreign Service Journal in a 1974 column by AFSA President Tom Boyatt. By 1980, it was a recurring tagline cited in the Journal and AFSA statements.

Over the past half century, AFSA has worked to influence legislation affecting the U.S. Foreign Service as an institution and career. It had significant input into the drafting of the Foreign Service Act of 1980, which maintained the Foreign Service as separate from the Civil Service, modernized the Foreign Service retirement system, and improved allowances, benefits, and pay.

AFSA’s transformation to activism was completed in 1973 when Foreign Service members voted for the association to become a union.

AFSA has been the leading proponent, or played a key advocacy role, in numerous other legislative changes that improved the Foreign Service as a place to work and raise a family. They include establishing Overseas Comparability Pay; establishing Virtual Locality Pay to calculate the pensions of members serving overseas based on the Washington, D.C., locality pay rate; exempting members from capital gains taxation upon the sale of their primary residence after extended overseas service; obtaining Law Enforcement Availability Pay for Diplomatic Security special agents; and gaining parity for the Foreign Service with the military on a range of benefits, including in-state college tuition rates for family members.

In negotiations with agency management, AFSA focuses on the long-term institutional well-being of the career Foreign Service. Over the years, AFSA has stopped or ameliorated numerous department-proposed personnel changes that would have addressed short-term personnel problems at the expense of long-term negative effects on the Foreign Service career. Examples include the department’s proposed directed assignments to war zone Iraq in 2007 and plans to stop all Foreign Service hiring early in the administration of President Donald Trump.

Despite its activism, AFSA has not always led the charge on needed reforms. AFSA did not support the 1976 class action lawsuit against the State Department citing discrimination against women in hiring, promotions, and assignments. AFSA did not support a similar lawsuit filed in 1986 by Black officers. AFSA deferred to the Association of American Foreign Service Women (today named the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide) to insert provisions in the Foreign Service Act of 1980 to protect the retirement benefits of ex-spouses. AFSA took until 2000 to throw its support behind efforts by the employee group Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (now known simply as glifaa) to secure benefits for domestic partners.

As AFSA enters its second century, it continues to advocate for the long-term well-being of the Foreign Service as an institution and career. The future is unknown, but coming challenges could include a reopening of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 for fundamental revision, as well as presidential or congressional moves to replace large numbers of career government employees with political appointees. With more than 80 percent of the active-duty Foreign Service belonging to AFSA and with “rainy day” reserve funds exceeding $4.5 million, AFSA is well placed to continue to defend and advance the interests of the U.S. Foreign Service.

John K. Naland, a retired FSO, is in his fourth term as AFSA retiree vice president. He also served as AFSA president (two terms) and AFSA State vice president. He is the 2016 recipient of the AFSA Achievements and Contributions to the Association award.


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