The war on terror just became a war on unionism. Under the rubric of "national security", the Bush administration seeks to destroy the union rights of 170,000 federal workers being transferred into its proposed Department of Homeland Security. Don't believe that this proposal is just a minor rearranging of the deck chairs. If the right wing has its way, it will constitute the most fundamental assault on federal employee rights in decades and undermine the independence of judgement that our century-old civil service laws were designed to protect.
And the reality is that undermining such workers rights will only further endanger our national security, as the retaliation suffered by whistleblowers trying to expose incompetence in non-union agencies like the FBI highlights.
Some 55% of the 1.8 million-member federal workforce is covered by union contracts. Employees in traditional national security duties, including the military, CIA, and FBI, are barred from union membership. But clerical personnel, including 44% of the Defense Department's workers, are represented by unions &emdash; with no evidence that this has ever undermined national security.
The unions representing federal employees have already denounced Bush's proposals. "This bill has the potential to allow the new Department to engage in personnel actions that are today illegal, such as picking out individual employees for transfer or removal from their jobs," argued Bobby L. Harnage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). "In opening the door to hiring and firing on the basis of politics and favoritism, the legislation would impose a modern day 'spoils system,' undermining the nation's long-standing civil service principles that ensure the integrity of our government."
And make no mistake, this proposal is part of a well-planned ideological assault on workers. Michael Franc, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, sees the Homeland Security proposal as "the conservative agenda" for the legislative year. In his view, using the legislation to undermine unions, eliminate race and gender hiring goals, and ending prevailing wage rules will be used to mobilize conservative voters. And since Franc's old boss, Dick Armey, was named chairman of the committee overseeing the process of creating the agency, the conservatives have a strong representative to push through their anti-union agenda.
There was plenty of warning of this anti-union goal by the Bush administration. On Jan. 7, Bush signed Executive Order 13252 which removed 1,000 Justice Department lawyers from union jurisdiction on "national security" grounds, including those in the US Attorney's offices, the Criminal Division, the US Central Bureau of Interpol, the National Drug Intelligence Center and the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review. And the order came the day of a Miami hearing by the Federal Labor Relations Authority to review a petition by DOJ employees requesting union representation. As a letter by lawmakers protesting the executive order noted, "To an outside and objective observer, this timing appears to be more than coincidental."
Similarly, the legislation federalizing airport screeners across the country exempted those employees from automatic union and civil service protections. Instead, power to set wages and working conditions was given to a newly created position, the undersecretary of transportation for security. And the new undersecretary, John Magaw, has refused so far to grant union rights to those employees, but has announced that he does not want those workers to have full whistle-blower protections.
Under the old private system, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had organized 2,000 screeners &emdash; who will lose collective bargaining rights if the administration moves forward with its anti-union plans. "What the administration will have done is take advantage of this law to disenfranchise people who previously had the right to unionize," commented AFGE's Beth Moten.
Ironically, on the same day in June that the administration announced its proposed Homeland Security Department, Bush signed an order that rescinded the designation of air traffic controllers as "inherently governmental" employees. This opens the doors to privatizing air traffic operations and undermining the air traffic controllers union that has painfully reconstituted itself since its predecessor PATCO union was destroyed by Reagan. This order just shows the anti-union cynicism of the administration, since it's hard to imagine in the wake of 9/11 anything more relevant to national security than air traffic control.
The retaliation that has occurred against whistleblowers at the non-union FBI just shows why union security is not just a workers rights issue but a key to assuring competent government. Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent who revealed the incompetence of the agency leading up to 9/11, testified before Congress and identified the "risk aversion" by agents and "micromanagement" by top level supervisors as a key source of the problem. Agents are so afraid of retaliation that they are unwilling to "rock the boat ... We have a culture in the FBI that there's a certain pecking order."
The non-union FBI has been wracked by scandals of whistleblowers trying to expose incompetence in their agency, only to suffer harassment to keep quiet. In the mid-'90s, chronic problems in FBI crime labs were highlighted by whistleblower Frederic Whitehurst, a scientist-agent, who along with colleagues were suspended for their service to the country. Despite praise by senators for his courage, Whitehurst suffered demotions, internal investigations, and forced psychological treatments. Similarly, when a wiretap translator in D.C. raised suspicions about a coworker's connections to a suspicious group under surveillance, despite the verification of much of her story, the FBI fired her for publicly raising her concerns.
One of the main reasons we are hearing calls for overhauling the nation's internal security is because of the failures of the FBI. So why would we create a whole Department with the same culture of arbitrary retaliation and risk aversion as the FBI?
Bush argues that undermining workers rights in the Department of Homeland Security is a tradeoff for greater national security. But that supposed tradeoff is just a false and cynical fig leaf by the administration for union busting it has been promoting since the first day of its administration.
What the American people have to understand is that the problems of the FBI are inextricably linked to the lack of workers' rights in the agency. We don't need a new Department with 170,000 employees afraid to report mistakes by their supervisors with no union protection for whistleblowers.
It is the union busters in the Bush administration who are endangering national security, not the rank-and-file federal employees trying to do their job without harassment.
Nathan Newman is a union lawyer, longtime community activist, a national vice president of the National Lawyers Guild and author of the forthcoming book Net Loss on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or see http://www.nathannewman.org.