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 in late January. The FBI knocked on his door.
Agent William Root arrived with a list of questions reminiscent of another era: Were you born in Mindanao? Are you a Muslim? Are you anti-American? Ulanday, a community activist and organizer with Filipinos for Affirmative Action in Oakland, was born and raised in suburban San Pablo, California.
It was no surprise that the FBI seemed to be equating advocacy for the rights of immigrant workers with terrorism. On January 9 that connection was made in another way by the head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Adm. James Loy, when he prohibited collective bargaining outright for the new airport-screener work force. “Fighting terrorism demands a flexible work force 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.”
Had this been the private sector, or even those remaining parts of the federal government where normal labor rights still apply, the action would have been illegal. But since September 11 the terrain of labor relations under Bush has changed dramatically. National security is now the pretext for banning unions and rolling back the rights of workers across the board.
In January 2002 the Bush Administration ruled that a thousand workers in the Justice Department were ineligible for union membership, deeming it incompatible with their job responsibilities. The order denying their right to collective bargaining arrived the very day the National Treasury Employees Union filed a representation petition on their behalf.
In the debate over the Homeland Security Act last fall, Mitchell Daniels, director of the Office of Management and Budget, argued that excluding unions from the federal government might “eventually help us untie managerial talent across the executive branch.” The act, passed immediately after the Republican sweep in November, while Dems still controlled the Senate, allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to exempt any group in the huge new department, encompassing 170,000 workers, from civil service regulations that govern pay grades, ban discrimination and protect whistleblowers. Even though thousands of these workers already belong to unions, the law also allows the secretary to prohibit collective bargaining.
In early February the Administration ruled that another thousand workers, at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, would lose their bargaining rights. NIMA director James Clapper claimed that collective bargaining would compromise the ability of agency workers to perform intelligence, investigative and security duties, and promptly began to contract out much of the agency’s work–an easy process without the obligation to bargain. “It’s not that the employees’ jobs have changed, or that NIMA’s mission has changed,” said Diane Witiak of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). “It’s simply part of the Bush Administration’s overall plan to bust federal-sector unions and reward his political contributors.”