David Bacon Stories & Photographs


Using National Security to Bash Workers
By David Bacon
The Nation, May 2003

OAKLAND, CA (4/28/03) -- After a year of fighting with the Federal government over the rights of displaced airport baggage screeners, Kawal Ulanday finally got a response from authorities. The FBI knocked on his door.

Agent William Root arrived with a list of questions reminiscent of an earlier era, but gave them a new twist. Were you born in Mindanao, he asked. Are you a Muslim? Do you know anyone in the Philippines linked to Al-Qaeda? Are you anti-American?
Ulanday, born in San Pablo, California, is a community activist and staff organizer at Filipinos for Affirmative Action in Oakland. Since the passage of the Transportation Security Act, he and FAA have been helping screeners who lost their jobs in the federalization of the workforce.

It was no surprise to them that the Bush administration seemed to be equating terrorism with advocacy for the rights of immigrants, workers and unions. And on January 9, that equation became more explicit than ever, when Admiral James Loy, head of the Transportation Security Administration, prohibited collective bargaining outright for the new screener workforce.

"Fighting terrorism demands a flexible workforce that can rapidly respond to threats," 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." To deal with workplace issues, Loy created a management-dominated group within the agency's human relations department.

Had this been the private sector, or even those remaining parts of the Federal government where normal labor rights still apply, both actions would have been illegal. But since September 11, the terrain for labor relations under Bush has changed dramatically. The treatment of the screeners has been a touchstone for this new world. Close to 30,000 workers, working in every major metropolitan area, were fired last year. Had they been workers in another industry, the outcry might have been fierce. But these were largely minorities and immigrants, almost all without unions, and their fate hardly created a media blip.

Screeners took the first blow, not from Bush, but from Congress. In the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, screeners were blamed for allowing terrorists armed with box cutters and plastic knives to board airliners. The items used by the hijackers were all permissible at the time, but baggage screeners made a convenient and easy scapegoat in the atmosphere of fear that followed. Both Republicans and Democrats voted for the Transportation Security Act, which called for replacing the existing workforce with a new, federalized one.

Especially in large metropolitan airports like Boston's Logan, from which the hijackers departed, a large percentage of screeners were people of color. In many airports most were immigrants -- from the Philippines and other countries of Asia and Latin America. They worked for wages close to the minimum, in high-stress jobs for private contractors hired by the airlines. Over the last decade, bad conditions inspired union organizing drives in many airports. In San Francisco, a new screeners union finally raised wages above $10 for the first time.

Federalizing the jobs could therefore have benefited the existing workforce, bringing higher wages and greater security. But Federal employees must be citizens. That requirement cost thousands of immigrant screeners their jobs.

One was Erlinda Valencia, who worked at San Francisco airport. "I've done this job for 14 years," she said, "but they're going to hire people with no experience at all. You can fly the airplane if you're not a citizen, or carry a rifle in the airport if you belong to the National Guard. But you can't check the bags of the passengers."

Valencia's union, Service Employees Local 790, lobbied to make San Francisco one of five airports nationally where private contractors continue to run screening operations. That saved the union contract, but it didn't save the workers. Non-citizens like Valencia weren't even allowed to apply for the jobs. SEIU, FAA and the ACLU challenged the non-citizen ban in court and won a limited decision, but while the case was on appeal the workers were canned. Proposed legislation to overturn the ban died in Congress, despite numerous demonstrations by immigrant workers and supporters.

Citizen screeners didn't fare much better. The Transportation Security Agency set up a screening process for their new workforce, designed by corporate executives Bush brought in on loan. The old screener workforce was put at the end of the line when it came to taking the test to get rehired. Test questions asked candidates to guess what percentage of supervisors abuse employees, or what percentage of their coworkers cheat -- queries designed to elicit attitudes towards authority, rather than test job skills. "It was more of an integrity test," according to one current JFK screener. English-proficiency tests weeded out naturalized immigrants who spoke with accents.

At both Oakland and San Francisco, workers were so angry they planned to stop work in protest. Ulanday, who assists the Oakland workers, says TSA threatened to replace striking workers immediately, and deny them training and unemployment benefits. He went in front of television cameras to describe the threats, which might have earned him his FBI visit.

Most former screeners didn't get the $500 bonus promised if they stayed to the end -- "we were all promised one, but no one I know has received anything," says Lydia Koslowska, a former Oakland screener who put in 16-hour days to keep lines running before she was terminated. After hundreds at Oakland lost their jobs in late November, FAA and the Alameda County Central Labor Council had to organize a food distribution to ensure they wouldn’t go hungry over the holidays. But the corporate designers of the new screening system were well-rewarded. Boeing even got TSA managers to dip into a fund intended to purchase explosive detection equipment, and instead turn over $500 million to pay for part of its contract, according to a letter from the American Association of Airport Executives to Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta. The actual work was subcontracted to Advanced Interactive Systems.

Boeing's expensive training, given through a subcontract with Advanced Interactive Systems, didn't ensure a fair or smooth process, however. While regulations call for 40 hours in the classroom and 60 hours of training on the job, many new hires were thrown onto the lines with much less. At New York's LaGuardia airport, and in St. Louis and Portland, some were even given the answers to questions on certification tests in advance by their supervisors, according to a report in Newsday. On the other hand, Koslowska had to take her test without notice or prepartation, at the end of a 16-hour shift.
The composition of the new screener workforce changed as a result. "At the top 100 airports, which employed 80% of the screeners, it was a majority-minority workforce," according to SEIU researcher Robert Masciola. TSA reports the new workforce is 61% white, and only 31% of new hires are women. The agency also says only 4500 of the original 28-30,000 screeners were rehired, and some observers think the percentage was much less than that.

TSA hired many former military and law enforcement personnel into management positions, creating a culture of "do what you're told, and don't ask questions." Being a Federal employee, it turned out, was no guarantee of good working conditions. In Pittsburgh, where screeners worked 48-hour weeks through the holidays, their one day off changed at the whim of supervisors. Mandatory overtime was a constant at JFK and LaGuardia, where some put in 7-day weeks during the same period. Screeners were told to quit if they didn't like it. Workers at the X-ray machines still often have no radiation badges to measure cumulative exposure, and some have already contracted back problems from lifting heavy bags. "I have friends who’ve been sexually harassed," the JFK screener adds, "but with no union, who can they go to? If they complain, managers just transfer the man to another terminal."

Adopting the corporate model for workforce compensation, TSA set up "pay bands" instead of the normal scale, paying screeners between $23-34,000 a year. Supervisors determine unilaterally the actual salary, and everyone starts at the bottom. The agency told newly-hired workers their probation would last for a year.

Despite feeling insecure about their jobs, it didn't take long before the new screeners began to organize. By mid-February, AFGE had filed petitions to bargain for 3300 workers at LaGuardia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago Midway, Greensboro, Harlingen/McAllen/Brownsville, and Columbus. Workers formed organizing committees and were preparing petitions at JFK, Tampa, Orlando, Charlotte, Atlantic City and Des Moines.

That was when Loy prohibited collective bargaining, and when the influence of corporate executives surfaced again. Before the Federal Labor Relations Authority, TSA argued that if Loy's order is not upheld, screeners should still not be entitled to organize unions airport by airport. Instead, they all should form one national bargaining unit, a huge obstacle to organizing efforts. This is exactly the position taken by Federal Express when its workers began to organize. Congress then passed a special law giving the company a nationwide bargaining unit, which killed the drive. Among the corporate execs at TSA is Clifford Hardt, FedEx's director for special projects, who boasted to the Sacramento Bee that "we couldn't have done what we did if they hadn't torn down established procedures."

Loy’s order could have been easily predicted. In a dramatic preview of what lay in store, the administration ruled in January, 2002, that close to 1000 workers in the Department of Justice were ineligible for union membership, deeming it incompatible with their job responsibilities. These included employees of the US attorney, the DoJ Criminal Division, the US National Central Bureau of Interpol, the National Drug Intelligence Center, and the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review. The letter denying their right to collective bargaining came on the day the treasury employees union filed a representation petition on their behalf.

Then, in the debate over the Homeland Security Act last fall, Bush's director of the Office of Management and the Budget, Mitchell Daniels, declared that the model for labor relations at the new department might "eventually help us untie managerial talent across the executive branch." The Federal workplace, in other words, would come to look much like Enron’s.

The Act, passed after the November election, while Democrats still controlled the Senate, allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to write new employment rules, exempting any group in the department from existing civil service regulations governing pay grades, promotion and hiring systems, banning discrimination, or protecting whistleblowers. It also allows the secretary to suspend Title 5 of the Civil Service Act, which guarantees collective bargaining rights for Federal workers, for units like TSA. The Department is huge, encompassing 170,000 workers, thousands of whom currently belong to 17 different unions in 50 bargaining units.

In early February, the administration ruled that another 1000 workers, at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, would lose their already-existing right to bargain. NIMA director James Clapper cited the 1996 act which created the agency in eliminating the union, saying that collective bargaining would compromise the ability of its workers to perform intelligence, investigative and security duties. But NIMA is also contracting out the work of those very employees. Shedding its obligation to bargain with them makes the move much easier. "It's not that the employees' jobs have changed, or that NIMA's mission has changed," said AFGE's Diane Witiak. "It's simply part of the Bush administration's overall plan to bust federal sector unions and reward his political contributors."

Using Federal employment as a pattern for fighting unions is only one form of Bush’s policy of intervention against labor, which predates the September 11 attacks. On March 9, 2001, the president told 10,000 mechanics, plane cleaners and janitors at Northwest Airlines that they couldn’t strike for 60 days, despite the fact that the union contract of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association had expired over four years before. His action eliminated any incentive for the airline to negotiate, and it broke off negotiations two days later, rejecting the union’s proposals.

Bush repeated the action in December, 2001, at United Airlines, where 15,000 mechanics, working under wage concessions negotiated in 1994, had voted almost unanimously to strike. After September 11, the airline went into a tailspin, and eventually filed for bankruptcy in January, 2003. As executives at the supposedly worker-owned company played hardball to extract massive wage concessions from employees, Bush officials put a big weapon in their hands, threatening to withhold a $1.8 billion bailout if unions didn't agree.

The administration openly argues that the functioning of the air transport industry is vital to US society, and that job actions are threats to the economy and the nation itself. In the summer and fall last year, that use of national security to prevent job action among transport workers took an enormous leap forward. As the contract between the west coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association expired on July 31, the administration intervened directly.

Before negotiations even began, shippers and some of their biggest customers, including The Gap, Target, Mattel, and Home Depot, held secret meetings with a White House task force headed by advisor Carlos Bonilla. Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge and representatives of the Department of Labor then phoned ILWU President Jim Spinosa, warning him that the administration would view any interruption of work on the docks as a threat to national security. They threatened to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, to use the military to replace striking workers, to place the waterfront under the Railway Labor Act (making a strike virtually illegal), and to remove the union's ability to negotiate a single labor agreement covering all ports on the coast.

The ILWU nimbly avoided being provoked into a strike, but finally, at the peak shipping season, employers locked out their own workers. Although the PMA accused the union of organizing an alleged work slowdown, speedup on the docks was so intense that accidents cost the lives of five longshoremen last year. When the union told its members to work at a safe speed, the PMA locked them out, and then demanded that Bush invoke Taft-Hartley. The administration's legal brief before Judge Alsup voiced a startling new philosophy, elaborated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield. He held that all commercial cargo could be considered important to the military, not just goods specifically intended for military use abroad.

"The DoD increasingly relies upon commercial items and practices to meet its requirements," he stated. "Raw materials, medical supplies, replacement parts and components, as well as everyday subsistence needs of our armed forces, are just some of the essential military cargo provided by commercial contractors that typically are not labeled as military cargo."

In other words, any stoppage on the docks is a threat to national security. Instead of defining a threat in terms of vital life-dependent services, this use of national security defines it as economic. Any strike halting the continued operation of an industry or a large profitable enterprise could be defined as such a threat, and made illegal.

At the beginning of October, the union went back to work, having been locked out for 12 days. They returned, not voluntarily, as they had offered, but under Federal injunction. Bargaining continued for another month under the Taft-Hartley Act’s 80-day "cooling off" period.

On the surface, it seems incomprehensible that the association would need a Federal order to open the gates of the closed terminals. After all, they'd shut them themselves, and could have opened them at any time. But the resumption of work was not the issue. The PMA wanted a guarantee that dockers would be forced to continue unloading ships through the peak shipping season, when goods traveling from the sweatshops of the eastern Pacific rim are en route to stores for the Christmas rush. And it wanted to make the union so vulnerable that it would be unable to put pressure on employers during negotiations.

In the end, the ILWU agreed to a six-year contract with significant salary and benefit increases, but some job losses due to implementation of new technology, as well as new pay differentials, which the union historically has also opposed. Both the contract's supporters and opponents agreed that the union's leverage in negotiations was severely eroded by Bush's intervention.

While this use of national security is having a growing effect on unions, many still don’t challenge the rationale directly. Their more limited argument questions whether changes sought by the administration are necessary and fair, and whether they violate union rights. Once the logic of the threat is accepted, however, almost any response becomes justifiable. In the words of TSA's Chris Rhatigan, "collective bargaining would be incompatible with the nation's safety." Nico Melendez, another TSA representative, is even more blunt: "Security is paramount and collective bargaining could cripple the system."

Unions organized two huge Solidarity Day demonstrations when Reagan busted PATCO. Yet so far they have yet to organize a similar mass response in the streets to defend the screeners, and question this use of national security. the rank-and-file of the labor movement have yet to be mobilized in their own defense, against a clear threat to their own rights. This timidity hardly puts the administration on notice that labor intends an all-out battle to resist, and it hardly seems possible that Bush and his corporate allies will be detered by anything less.

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