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Government Unions Put Security at Risk By: Thomas Wiloch
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Government unions, which exist to protect incompetent federal workers from deserved reprimands or dismissals, threaten national security by their very existence. Unfortunately, their leadership has shown overt hostility to national security and the American way of life. Sounds hard to believe?

During the anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) challenged the raucous protesters to "name the system" that oppresses people and "commodifies everything from a forest in Brazil to a library in New Jersey." McEntee concluded, "That system is corporate capitalism."

Three years later, McEntee (who was a major backer of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign) and his cronies gave Homeland Security legislation the Seattle treatment. Numerous Democratic senators held up the legislation on the grounds that the bill allowed for pockets of non-unionized labor in the vast sea of federal bureaucracies. In frustration, President George W. Bush groused, "The Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people." (Outgoing Texas Senator Phil Gramm went further, saying the Democrats "love public employee unions more than homeland security.") The Senate finally acted in the best interests of the nation, and against the wishes of Big Labor. However, the two major government unions have attempted to sabotage the Department of Homeland Security, the war on terror, and a possible war on Iraq.

These unions see the Bush Administration's efforts to forge a united Department of Homeland Security to fight terrorism as simple union-busting and a war on Iraq as a way to distract attention from domestic problems. Charles M. Loveless, for example, Director of Legislation for AFSCME, in a statement sent to members of Congress in November of 2002, called upon the nation's representatives to oppose the Homeland Security Act for its "disingenuous language of protecting homeland security" and for its alleged attempt to "weaken federal employee unions."

On December 13, 2002, the AFSCME's International Executive Board issued a resolution against a war on Iraq, claiming that the Bush Administration "must not use Iraq as a reason to neglect the crisis at home." Although the statements of AFSCME about the war against terrorism are troubling enough, the 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE)--the union representing civilian employees at American military bases and now fighting to organize airport security screeners--has managed to be even more disturbing. When the Homeland Security Act was up for a vote in November of 2002, AFGE's national union president Bobby Harnage called for Congress to oppose the bill: "It has nothing to do with improving security. All it does is strip federal workers of the right to defend themselves in the workplace." The bill, he continued, was "warmed-over union-busting that even the Bush Administration feels the need to shroud in false advertising."

Radical politics are nothing new to the leaders of either AFSCME or AFGE. In addition to Gerald McEntee’s anti-capitalist statements in Seattle, other labor luminaries have joined the socialist chorus. At a follow-up anti-WTO rally in Washington, DC, in April of 2000, AFGE's Bobby Harnage explained to the crowd: "Workers produce the enormous profits of global capitalism. It is a crime against mankind that they do not share in those benefits.... The time has come for the international aristocracy to share the fruits of prosperity with workers in every country."

Rank-and-File Radicals
While these statements from government union bosses are troubling, individual union members rival their leaders in the distrust they seem to have for the government that employs them. In October, at a conference organized by New York City Labor Against War (NYCLAW), several AFSCME
members spoke out. According to the Socialist Worker Online website, Wilma Claude of AFSCME Local 371 is quoted as saying that "the government is bent on going to war, and they always find a way to accomplish their goal." "I really don't feel we should go to war," claimed Jose Rodriguez of AFSCME Local 420 in the same article. "It's about a country that has oil that we want. It's totally unacceptable." AFGE members have also taken strong stands. During an October 7th anti-war march in Cincinnati, Bob Park, AFGE Local 3840's delegate to the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council, served as a protest monitor. He was quoted at the Global Exchange website as explaining that "The Bush administration is launching an assault [on] many fronts....One front is in world diplomacy and aimed against Iraq.... Another is the labor front.... getting rid of unions, getting rid of workers."

Echoing the members, some government union Locals have issued quite radical resolutions of their own. AFSCME Local 3800, representing some 1,800 clerical workers at the University of Minnesota, passed a resolution on November 22, 2002, claiming that "the past twelve years of U.S. bombing and sanctions on Iraq have resulted in dire shortages of food and medicine and contributed to the deaths of over 1 million Iraqis, including 500,000 children." It also claimed that "the Bush administration is using the so-called War on Terrorism to distract the American people from the vital issues they confront."

On May 23, 2002, Seattle's AFSCME Local 304 passed a resolution criticizing "Bush's ever-expanding `war on terrorism,'" which the Local claims "has been cynically used to justify a $48 billion hike in next year's military budget." To put the phrase war on terrorism in quotes says it all. And no mention of September 11th as, maybe, a possible motivation for the Bush Administration to beef up the military. The resolution also complained that "over 1,000 immigrants were imprisoned in detention centers, thousands of airport workers (many of them immigrants of color) were fired simply because they were not citizens, and Muslims, people of Middle Eastern descent and other immigrants suffered increased violence sparked by racial profiling by the INS and FBI." Notice how non-citizens working high-security jobs at an airport is not a problem for the Local, while the INS and FBI trying to keep possible terrorists away from places where they can do damage is dangerous "racial profiling." The resolution also claimed that "the federal `USA Patriot' anti-terrorism act and similar state measures undermine labor's right to organize and fight anti-immigrant attacks and other union-busting tactics by expanding government's ability to detain non-citizens."

Finally, the Local called for "pressuring local and state law enforcement to refuse to cooperate with FBI spying on political, union, and anti-globalism activists or comply with INS harassment of Arabs and other immigrants and people of color" and "demanding the immediate release of the hundreds of Middle Eastern, Arab and other immigrants who are still being detained." The government, you see, is the real danger, not illegal immigrants from the Middle East.

The Executive Board of Clerical Local 1549, AFSCME District Council 37, of New York, representing some 22,000 members, issued a resolution on November 4, 2002, claiming that "unilateral action by the United States against Iraq would violate the United Nations Charter and result in the death of millions." Further more, "war with Iraq may lead the Bush administration to start similar wars with North Korea and elsewhere."

Yes, the Bush Administration would "start" the war. Finally, "war threats are being used by the Bush administration to divert attention away from the falling economy and as a means to win support for unpopular and anti-working people actions such as the Homeland Security Act." One could argue that District Council 37 is using its anti-war blustering as a way to divert attention away from its own problems. Since 1998, the District Council and two of its Locals have been put in receivership. Some $18 million has been reported missing, two Local presidents have been convicted of stealing $2 million, and half of the District Council members have been indicted or convicted of either vote fraud or theft.

When the District Council 37 scandals first broke in 2000, the non-partisan watchdog group the Association for Union Democracy accused AFSCME boss McEntee of having turned a "blind eye" to the problems for years. Maybe that's because McEntee has his own corruption problems. He was a participant in the money-laundering scandal of Teamsters president Ron Carey during Carey's re-election bid in 1996. He solicited an illegal $20,000 donation to Carey's campaign from the Kelly Press, a printing firm that does millions of dollars in business with AFSCME. McEntee and company co-owner Paul Kelly are old friends, playing frequent games of tennis and going on fishing trips together.

The Homeland Security Act as "Union-Busting"

Government union opposition to the war on terror first began shortly after President Bush announced the idea of a Department of Homeland Security in July of 2002. What raised union ire was Bush's call that the proposed department--combining "22 existing components of Government, 17 separate unions, and 7 different pay roll systems," as an Office of Personnel Management press release explained--needed managerial flexibility to merge these different systems into a single, cohesive and effective whole, "without all kinds of bureaucratic rules and obstacles," as Bush stated.

In August, the AFGE reacted to the president's statement by opposing the newly-proposed Department's alleged plan to eliminate title 5 civil service protections for its employees. These include whistle-blower protection and preferences for veterans. Union president Bobby Harnage declared that the Bush people "either ... don't understand the federal employment system, or else they're lying to the American people. I choose the latter." He went on to call the Administration "anti-union, anti-worker." AFGE issued a report claiming that all the bureaucratic flexibility the Administration wanted already existed under current rules.

But Office of Personnel Management director Kay Coles James disputed the union's claims. "The AFGE report ... demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the proposed Homeland Security legislation," James stated, "and indeed existing Federal law. It provides misinformation and
glaring inaccuracies about the President's vision to protect America by creating a unified and effective Department of Homeland Security."
In January, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)--part of the Department of Homeland Security--banned collective bargaining for the nearly 56,000 airport security screeners who check passengers and baggage for weapons and explosives. "Fighting terrorism demands a flexible work force that can rapidly respond to threats," TSA leader James Loy said. "That can mean changes in work assignments and other conditions of employment that are not compatible with the duty to bargain with labor unions." The bill that created the TSA in November of 2001 does allow for Loy to "make such modifications to the personnel management system" as he "considers appropriate." As TSA spokesman Robert Johnson explained it, "When it comes to responding to new intelligence or terrorist threats on a moment's notice, we don't have time to check with a shop steward."

The AFGE responded to the announcement by continuing its year-long effort to organize airport screeners, despite the ban on unions, and demanding that the Federal Labor Relations Authority reverse Loy's ruling. Organizing efforts continued at LaGuardia Airport in New York, Baltimore-Washington Airport, Pittsburgh International Airport, and at airports in Raleigh-Durham, NC, and Chicago. Jim Ritchie in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review found that, due to these efforts, there were "reports of work slowdowns at some airports."

In the wake of September 11th, America's government workers' unions have decided to play politics as usual, putting the interests of their members above those of other Americans. Some of their members have gone from the usual union criticism of a Republican president to questioning the country's foreign policy motives, despite the obvious threats the nation faces. The stances of AFSCME and AFGE against the ongoing war on terrorism, particularly because so many of the employees they represent work in departments charged with countering that terrorism, threatens to put American security at risk.

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