David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
National Security, Or War On Workers?
by David Bacon

OAKLAND, CA (10/14/02) -- Erlinda Valencia came from the Philippines almost two decades ago. Like many Filipinos living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she found a job at the airport, screening carryon bags for passengers.

For 14 years she worked for Argenbright Security, the contractor used by airlines across the country for airport screening. For most of that time, she held a minimum-wage job, and could barely support her family working 40 hours a week. Then, two years ago, organizers from the Service Employees International Union began talking to the screeners. She decided to get involved, and eventually became a leader in the campaign that brought the union in. She remembers: "It seemed to us all that for the first time, we had a real future." Their new contract raised wages to over $10 an hour, and harassment by managers abated.

Then the airplanes hit the twin towers in New York and everything changed. Screeners were publicly blamed for allowing terrorists to board airplanes in Boston and New York with box cutters and plastic knives, despite the fact that these were permitted items at the time.

Because of low pay and mistreatment, immigrants and minorities have been concentrated in screener jobs. After September 11, they were an easy target. In short order, the Bush administration proposed, and Congress passed, legislation setting up a new Transportation Security Authority, which required that screeners be Federal employees. That could have been a good thing for Valencia and her coworkers -- Federal workers have decent salaries, and often, because of civil service, good job security. Federal regulations protect their right to belong to unions, as well -- at least they used to.

But Congress required that screeners be citizens, and Valencia had never become one. In fact, at San Francisco airport over 800 screeners are non-citizens. The Bush administration refused to establish any fast track to citizenship, to help existing screeners qualify for new Federalized jobs. So just as she and her coworkers organized a union, and have finally made their jobs capable of supporting a family, they are losing 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 fired its leaders. And when those jobs become part of Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security, that union-free status may stay in place.

Hostility by the Bush administration towards unions has been evident since it took office, but since September 11 it has used national security as a pretext for throwing into question the right of workers to strike, to bargain effectively, and even to have a union at all.

The administration's use of national security as a pretext for moves against unions even 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. Bush set up a Presidential Emergency Board to make findings in the dispute, 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.

Invoking "cooling-off periods" (in effect, a temporary ban on strikes), and the appointment of PEBs, 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. In September, Bush officials followed up by telling United unions that unless they agreed to even further concessions, the administration would withhold the $1.8 billion bailout the airline said it had to have to avoid bankruptcy. Airline unions are now battling a Senate proposal (presumably made with administration support) to allow the Secretary of Transportation to impose contract settlements on workers, effectively eliminating their right to strike.

Regardless of union rights, the administration argues, the functioning of the air transport industry is vital to US society -- the same argument used to justify its airline bailout package rushed through Congress weeks after September 11. Interruptions, whether by union action or financial insolvency, are therefore implicitly threats to the economy and the nation itself.

But implicit invocation of national security became an elaborated and overt policy with the 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, essentially exempting any group in the department from existing civil service regulations, which govern pay grades, promotion and hiring systems, bans on discrimination, whistleblower protections and other job rights. The proposal eliminates Title 5 of the Civil Service Act, which guarantees collective bargaining rights for Federal workers. The Senate has debated a bill which makes much less sweeping changes in job rights, and the president has threatened to veto it.

In a dramatic preview of what lies in store, the administration ruled in January 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 a union representation petition was filed on their behalf by the American Federation of Government Employees.

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

But once management flexibility becomes enshrined as a necessary aspect of national security, it acquires a life of its own. OMB Director Mitchell Daniels recently declared that the Homeland Security model 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 flexibility rationale was rejected by Denise Dukes, a 13-year employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and president of AFGE 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."

The argument was elaborated by AFGE's president, Bobby Harnage, who declared that "the administration is overlooking the tremendous desire of government employees to make DHS work perfectly, because of their pride in the country and in their work. Our members don't theorize about improving security; they live it because of their own experiences with terrorism, both in Oklahoma City and on September 11."

On the one hand, the federal unions don't question the new national security atmosphere generated by the administration's War on Terror (soon, perhaps, to become the war on Iraq as well.) Some union members, in fact, in the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other law enforcement agencies, are even responsible for carrying out actions widely criticized as infringements on civil liberties and immigrant rights under the national security pretext. The more limited union argument questions whether the changes sought by the administration are necessary, and whether they violate union rights.

Over the summer, however, the use of national security as a pretext for violating those very rights took an enormous leap forward. As the contract between west coast longshore workers, represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and their employer, the Pacific Maritime Association, expired on July 31, the administration began to intervene directly.

According to Clarence Thomas, secretary-treasurer of ILWU Local 10, Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge, and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao both intervened personally to tell the union's bargaining committee that the administration is prepared to prevent any strike. Elissa Pruett, media spokesperson for the Department of Labor would state only that "the department continues to monitor the negotiations." But according to Thomas, administration officials did much more than that. They made clear that Bush at least would invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, under which striking longshoremen would be ordered to return to work for 80 days.

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 NLRA, the union now has a clear right to strike. Under the RLA, the government can order an end to any threatened strike, and impose a contract if the union doesn't agree.

Department of Labor sources told the LA Times that the union's coastwise bargaining structure might be declared an illegal monopoly. All west coast ports have worked under a single contract since the end of the 1934 general maritime strike, in which the ILWU was born. The single agreement not only equalized conditions, but has given union members a great deal of bargaining leverage, since 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 offload the giant shipping containers. When President Reagan used the military to replace striking air traffic controllers in 1982, imprisoning the union's leaders for conducting an illegal strike, two decades of bitter industrial conflict followed. Large corporations viewed Reagan's action as an invitation to permanently replace striking workers, an act that, while legal, had been largely untested until then.

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.

Long before negotiations began, shipping companies and the large corporations dependent on trans-Pacific vessels, like The Gap, Mattel and Home Depot, formed the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, and approached the Bush administration for help. The government then set up a task force, headed by White House advisor Carlos Bonilla, to meet with them. Wages and benefits were never the primary issue in these negotiations. The hourly rate for longshore workers ranges from 27.68 to 33.48 -- about the same as a plumber or electrician. And while these are good wages in terms of the US industrial average, the shipping companies are not claiming poverty in negotiations, and in general are making large profits.

What they would like, however, is to keep certain workers out of the union -- the vessel planners who tell the cranes where to put every shipping container, the clerical workers who help track container movement, and the drivers who haul containers in and out of the ports. Workers in these categories in many ports have already joined the ILWU, or tried to, attracted by its high wage rates. The union wants to include them in all ports, to make up for the potential loss of jobs among the clerks who currently track cargo manually. PMA negotiators have said no. The union looks at this as an issue of its own survival.

"As work changes, some jobs disappear, while others increase," explains ILWU spokesperson Steve Stallone. "Right now our jobs are the ones disappearing. When the companies say they don't want our members doing these new jobs, it's like saying they want the union to disappear too." That is a goal that Bush's actions implicitly support.

All the Bush proposals have the same intent -- to make a waterfront strike impossible. But their long-term effect 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 as economic. Any strike halting the continued operation of an industry or large profitable enterprise could be defined as such a threat, and made illegal.

PMA built its strategy based on this philosophy. Early on, it sponsored a steady media drumbeat announcing that a waterfront strike would send the economy into a tailspin. One study made in April, widely quoted as negotiations grew more difficult, predicted losses of $1 billion a day. The study was made by a Lancaster, Pennsylvania management consultant firm, Martin Associates, and paid for by the PMA.

When the union avoided being provoked into a strike, the PMA simply locked workers out of the terminals in late September, accusing them of a slowdown. Once they were locked out, the employers then demanded Bush invoke Taft-Hartley, and after 10 days, got what they wanted. Despite the fact that they themselves had locked the gates of their own terminals, the Bush administration got a Federal judge to order the union to work under its old contract, with no interruption, for 80 days.

The administration's legal brief voiced a startling new philosophy to defend the action, elaborated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield. He held that all commercial cargo could be considered important to the military, not just specifically goods intended for military use abroad. Any stoppage on the docks, therefore, was a threat to national security. "The DoD increasingly relies upon commerical items and practices to meet its requirements," he stated. "Raw materials, medical supplies, replacement parts and components, as well as everyday subsistance needs of our armed forces, are just some of the essential military cargo porvided by commerical contractors that typically are not labelled as military cargo."

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 like Valencia, for instance, have been the workforce most active in labor organizing for the last decade in states like California, Texas and New York. Following the September 11 attacks, the Social Security Administration has sent out a wave of letters to employers, listing the names of employees whose Social Security numbers don't correspond to 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. And national security is openly used as a pretext. "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. Operation Tarmac has resulted in the arrest of over 1000 workers. While Federal authorities admit that none of these people are accused of terrorist activity, U.S. Attorney Debra Yang claimed that "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."

The net effect of this enforcement effort has been to increase the pressure on undocumented workers to avoid doing anything that might antagonize employers, especially organizing a union. When it becomes more risky and difficult for these workers to organize, or even to hold a job at all, they settle for lower wages. And when the price of immigrant labor goes down as a result, so do the wages for everyone else. Under the security rubric lies the famous market logic.

The vast increase in immigration enforcement has a big effect on those unions which have made a strategic alliance with immigrant communities in order to organize industries like building services, food preparation, hotels, meatpacking, farm labor and others. By making it more difficult and risky for those workers to organize, the administration is in effect helping employers resist unionization.

Sometimes that help has been more than implicit. A late-August raid at the Sea-Tac international airport south of Seattle led to the arrest of workers at the Sky Chef facility which prepares on-board meals for airlines. Those arrests took place in the middle of bargaining between the Hotel Employees union and the company. The union claims that INS agents disguised themselves by wearing company uniforms, and that workers were called to an employee meeting, where they were identified and picked up. Some arrested workers had worked as long as 10 years at the facility, which ironically is owned by a foreign airline, Lufthansa.

The national security atmosphere, and its conscious use by the administration, is having a growing effect on unions in the most vital areas of their activity. And while many unions try to question only the unfair way that argument is used, once they admit the logic of the threat, almost any action in response becomes justifiable.

With a possible war against Iraq on the horizon, this use of national security will spread. In the recent Boeing negotiations, the International Association of Machinists was forced to accept a contract rejected by its leaders. Many workers explained their reluctance to strike by noting that in the current atmosphere, the company was holding all the cards.

"I think there's more to come," said Frank Larkin, IAM spokesperson. "It's outrageous to use national security to divide the country by union and non-union. 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."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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