Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Busting Unions to Protect "National Security"
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President Bush and his Republican allies in Congress agree that airport screeners play a vital role in the war against terror, yet continue to deny them the basic right of unionization by asserting that it would "threaten national security."

The actual motive is as obvious as the often demonstrated anti-unionism of Bush and friends. House members recognized that in January when they voted 299-128 for a bill that would repeal a provision of the five-year-old Aviation Transportation and Security Act that gives the president authority to bar screeners from exercising the collective bargaining rights granted other federal employees.

The Senate followed up on March 6 by also voting for repeal. But Bush has threatened to veto the measure, and the Senate vote of 51-46 fell far short of the 66 affirmative votes required to override a veto.

Bush and other opponents of the bill compare the 45,000 men and women who screen air passengers' luggage with the men and women who are fighting in Iraq.

"Marines don't collectively bargain over whether they're going to wind up, you know, being deployed in Anwar province or in Baghdad," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff explained. "We can't negotiate over terms and conditions of work that goes to the heart of our ability to move rapidly in order to deal with the threats that are emerging."

Bush agrees. He, too, sees nothing wrong with ignoring the labor laws - including those granting union rights - "when it serves our national interest."

But does it really serve the national interest to prohibit airport screeners from grabbing hold of unionization, the tool that workers must have if they are to gain job security and a fair and effective voice in determining their working conditions? To prohibit them from having union protection that would enable them to freely blow the whistle on wasteful, abusive or fraudulent management practices?

The screeners certainly aren't happy with their current conditions. They have a higher turnover rate than the employees of any other federal employee group, a higher injury rate, and file more discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Screeners complain especially about being forced to work overtime without prior notice, having their working shifts arbitrarily changed, their paychecks delayed and being sexually harassed. They say they face retaliation for complaining about their conditions or about problems with their agency's operations and lack sufficient health and safety standards and procedures to resolve grievances.

John Gage, president of the union seeking to bargain on behalf of the screeners - the American Federation of Government Employees - notes that those who run the Transportation Security Agency, which employs the screeners, also would benefit from unionization. For as employers elsewhere have learned, things in general go much more smoothly if there are mutually agreed to rules and procedures for dealing with labor-management relations and the operations of the workplace.

Gage says, in any case, that "it's time to put an end to TSA's bullying."

The United Nations' International Labor Organization said much the same thing, albeit in appropriately diplomatic terms. It ruled that the Transportation Security Agency violated "core labor standards" in denying screeners what it deemed their fundamental right to collective bargaining.

Denying unionization to screeners does not serve the interest of the screeners any more than it serves the interest of the country, as Bush pretends it does.

What it serves is the undisguised attempt by Bush and the GOP to weaken unions, which are among the Democrats' most effective supporters - as witness their key role in the party's midterm election victories. Republicans are especially eager to weaken public employee unions, which directly challenge the administration's authority and are the strongest segment of today's labor movement.

The GOP way, the Bush way, is to try to force public workers to take whatever their government bosses impose on them -- or else. And no questions asked.

The screeners haven't been their only federal targets. The Bush Administration previously installed a personnel system that would have denied bargaining rights to all 115,000 of the screeners' fellow employees in the Homeland Security Department, as well as greatly weakened their civil service protections.

The administration backed off, however, after two federal courts ruled that the unilaterally-imposed system would violate the workers' rights. One ruling, by an appeals court last June, said the system -- which would have required employees, but not their bosses, to sign an employment contract -- "not only defies the well-understood meaning of collective bargaining, it also defies common sense."

The administration is still trying to impose a similar system on the Defense Department's 700,000 employees, and is likely to soon come up with another new system for Homeland security.

It's the very least we can expect from George Bush and his Republican accomplices in their undiminished eagerness to protect the nation from the threat of unionization.

Copyright (c) Dick Meister