In the Name of National Security

Erlinda Valencia came from the Philippines almost two decades ago. Like many Filipinos living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she found a minimum-wage job at the airport, screening passengers' carry-on bags.

Two years ago, organizers from the Service Employees International Union began talking to the screeners. Valencia decided to get involved and eventually became a leader in the campaign that brought in the union. "It seemed to us all that for the first time, we had a real future," she recalls. A new contract raised wages to more than $10 an hour, and harassment by managers abated.

Then the airplanes hit the twin towers in New York, and everything changed. In short order, legislation established a new Transportation Security Administration, which required that screeners be federal employees. That could have been a good thing for Valencia and her co-workers: Federal workers have decent salaries and federal regulations protect their right to belong to unions -- at least they used to.

But the new law required that screeners be citizens, and Valencia had never become one. In fact, at San Francisco International Airport, more than 800 screeners are noncitizens. The Bush administration refused to establish any fast track to gaining citizenship that would have helped existing screeners qualify for new federalized jobs. So just when Valencia and her co-workers finally have turned their jobs into positions that can actually support a family, they will lose them. "You can fly the airplane and carry a rifle in the airport as a member of the National Guard without being a citizen," she observes bitterly. "But you can't check the bags of the passengers."

By federalizing the workforce, the government in effect busted recently organized unions for screeners. And when those jobs become part of Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security, that union-free status might become permanent.

The administration has been hostile toward unions ever since Bush took office, but since September 11 the White House has used national security time and again as a pretext for throwing into question the rights of workers to strike, to bargain effectively and even to have a union at all.

On March 9, 2001, a little more than a month after taking office, Bush issued an executive order in which he told 10,000 mechanics, plane cleaners and janitors at Northwest Airlines that they couldn't strike for 60 days. Bush set up the Presidential Emergency Board to make findings in the dispute, despite the fact that the mechanics' union contract had expired more than four years earlier. His action eliminated any incentive for the airline to negotiate, and it broke off talks with the union.

Invoking "cooling-off periods" (in effect, a temporary ban on strikes) and the appointment of such boards has become a Bush hallmark. He did it again last December at United Airlines, where 15,000 mechanics, working under wage concessions negotiated in 1994, had voted almost unanimously to strike. This September, Bush officials followed up by telling United's unions that unless they agreed to even further concessions, the administration would withhold the $1.8 billion bailout the airline said it needed to avoid bankruptcy. Airline unions are now battling a Republican bill that would allow the secretary of transportation to impose contract settlements on workers, effectively eliminating their right to strike. Regardless of union rights, the administration has argued, the functioning of the air transportation industry is vital to the U.S. economy -- the same argument used to justify the airline bailout package rushed through Congress weeks after September 11. Interruptions, whether by union action or financial insolvency, are viewed as threats to the economy and to the nation itself.

The administration's implicit use of national security as an anti-union device became explicit with its proposal to establish a Department of Homeland Security. In July the House passed the proposal essentially as the president asked. It would allow the secretary of homeland security to write new employment rules exempting any group in the department from existing civil-service regulations. And it would eliminate Title 5 of the Civil Service Act, which guarantees collective bargaining rights for federal workers. The Senate has debated a bill that makes less sweeping changes in job rights, and the president has threatened to veto it.

The department would be huge, encompassing 170,000 workers, many of whom currently belong to 17 different unions in 50 bargaining units. The administration has claimed from the beginning that the employees' existing workplace rights tie the hands of managers, who need freedom to move and discipline people without restraint during a national emergency.

The "flexibility" rationale was rejected by Denise Dukes, a 13-year employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 4060. "Like most employees of FEMA, I belong to one of the many specially trained emergency teams ready to respond in a crisis at a moment's notice," she said. "Flexibility is our middle name."

But once management flexibility becomes enshrined as a necessary aspect of national security, it acquires a life of its own. Mitchell Daniels, director of the Office of Management and Budget, recently declared that the homeland-security model might "eventually help us untie managerial talent across the executive branch."

Over the summer, the use of national security as a pretext for violating workers' rights took an enormous leap forward. As the contract expired between West Coast longshoremen, represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and their employer, the Pacific Maritime Association, the administration began to intervene directly.

According to Clarence Thomas, secretary-treasurer of ILWU Local 10, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao both intervened personally to tell the union's bargaining committee that the administration is prepared to prevent any strike. Elissa Pruett, spokeswoman for the Department of Labor, would state only that "the department continues to monitor the negotiations." But according to Thomas, administration officials have done much more than that. They made clear that Bush at the least would invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, under which striking longshoremen would be ordered to return to work for 90 days.

But other steps were discussed as well. Bush might call on Congress to place the union under the Railway Labor Act instead of the National Labor Relations Act. Under the latter, the union now has a clear right to strike. Under the former, the government could order an end to any threatened strike and impose a contract if the union doesn't agree.

Department of Labor sources told the Los Angeles Times that the union's bargaining structure might be declared an illegal monopoly because of the fact that all West Coast ports have worked under a single contract since the end of the 1934 general maritime strike, when the ILWU was born. The single agreement not only equalized conditions but also gave union members a great deal of bargaining leverage because a strike closes all ports at the same time. The threatened administration action would mean that if the union struck one port, shippers could simply load and unload their cargo in another, making a strike pointless.

Finally, the administration might replace striking longshoremen with Navy personnel in the huge cargo cranes that load and unload the giant shipping containers. Thomas says that the union was told this would only happen in wartime -- but since September 11, Bush has declared that a state of war exists and will go on indefinitely.

The long-term effect of the actions that the administration has threatened on the waterfront would extend far beyond the docks. The use of national security as a pretext for militarizing the workplace and replacing strikers could affect any union. Instead of defining a threat to national security in terms of vital life-dependent services such as firefighting, this use of national security defines it in terms of economic ones. Any strike halting the continued operation of an industry or large, profitable enterprise could be considered such a threat and made illegal. Behind the rationale of national security -- to keep the cargo moving, in this case -- is a much more class-specific one: to use the existing atmosphere to make it even more difficult for unions to function effectively in bargaining, in strikes and in organizing new workers. Immigrant workers such as Valencia, for instance, have been the part of the workforce most active in labor organizing for the past decade in states such as California, Texas and New York. Following the September 11 attacks, the Social Security Administration sent out letters to employers listing the names of employees whose Social Security numbers don't correspond to entries in the SSA database. Thousands of workers have been fired as a result.

In 2001 the agency sent out 110,000 such letters; this year it plans to increase it to 750,000. "Concerns about national security, along with the growing problem of identity theft, have caused us to accelerate our efforts," according to SSA Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart.

In airports across the country, the post-September 11 climate provided a new impetus for raids and deportations under Operation Tarmac, which has resulted in the arrests of more than 1,000 undocumented workers. While federal authorities admit that none of these people is accused of terrorist activity, U.S. Attorney Debra Yang said, "We now realize that we must strengthen security at our local airports in order to ensure the safety of the traveling public."

Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, which has mounted organizing drives among many of the workers in California airports, calls the arrests unwarranted. "These people aren't terrorists," he fumed. "They only want to work."

But one effect of this enforcement effort has been to increase the pressure on undocumented workers to avoid doing anything -- especially organizing a union -- that might antagonize employers. And with war now looming, many in labor fear the attack on workers and their unions will only grow worse.

"I think there's more to come," said Frank Larkin, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. "It's outrageous to use national security to divide the country by union and nonunion. And I think it can only get sharper if there's a war in Iraq. The hand's already been dealt by the administration. They already believe we're in a state of war."

You may also like