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.”
Bush’s hostility to labor predates the September 11 attacks. Twice he has invoked back-to-work orders against airline unions–in March 2001 against mechanics, plane cleaners and janitors at Northwest Airlines, and in December 2001, at United Airlines, where 15,000 mechanics had voted almost unanimously to strike.
But his use of national security to justify anti-union intervention took a leap forward after 9/11. As a contract between the West Coast’s International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association expired last July, the Administration threatened actions that would have made a longshore strike virtually illegal. When the PMA locked out the workers, Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act. The Administration’s legal brief, elaborated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, held that all commercial cargo, not just military materials or vital goods, could be considered important to national security. By defining threats to security in economic terms, Rumsfeld made the case that any strike halting the operation of an industry or a large enterprise could now be declared illegal.
The treatment of airport screeners is the touchstone for this new world, where the Administration’s antilabor agenda is at its most naked. Around 30,000 screeners, working in every major metropolitan area, were fired last year, one of the single largest mass terminations ever. But because those laid off were largely people of color and immigrants, and almost all without unions, their fate hardly created a media blip.
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 were all permissible at the time, but baggage screeners were a convenient scapegoat. Both Republicans and Democrats voted for the Transportation Security Act, which called for making screeners federal employees.
Federalizing the jobs could have benefited the existing work force, bringing higher wages and greater security. Most screeners then worked for wages close to the minimum, in high-stress jobs for private contractors hired by the airlines. Over the past decade, these poor conditions had finally inspired union organizing drives in many airports. In San Francisco in 2000, a new screeners’ union finally raised wages above $10 an hour for the first time.
But by law, federal employees must be American citizens. That requirement cost thousands of immigrants their jobs. One was Erlinda Valencia, who used to work at the San Francisco airport. “I’ve done this job for fourteen years,” she said, shortly before being fired, “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 passengers’ bags.”
Valencia’s union, Service Employees Local 790, lobbied to exempt San Francisco from the federalization process, making it one of five airports where private contractors continue to run screening operations. That saved the union contract, but it didn’t save the workers. Noncitizens weren’t even allowed to apply. The ACLU, with SEIU, FAA and other groups, challenged the noncitizen 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, mostly on the West Coast, by immigrant workers and supporters.
Citizen screeners didn’t fare much better. The TSA set up a screening process designed by corporate executives Bush brought in on loan. The old screener work force was put at the end of the line for tests that asked candidates to guess what percentage of supervisors abuse employees, or what percentage of their co-workers cheat. The tests, in other words, were designed to elicit attitudes toward authority rather than test job skills, and, according to several applicants, many naturalized immigrants who spoke with accents were weeded out. In New York, St. Louis and Portland, supervisors gave new hires the answers to questions on certification tests in advance, according to Newsday. Old-timers such as former Oakland screener Lydia Koslowska, meanwhile, had to take the test without notice or preparation, at the end of a sixteen-hour shift.
As the federalization deadline approached last November, longtime workers at Oakland and San Francisco were so angry that they planned to stop work in protest. But as the TSA moved forward with the hiring process, the agency used both carrots and sticks to keep the old workers in line, promising extra pay for workers who stayed on until their termination date and, according to Ulanday, threatening to replace striking workers and deny them training and unemployment benefits.
“We were all promised a $500 bonus if we stayed to the end, but no one I know received anything,” says Koslowska, who put in sixteen-hour days to keep lines running before she was terminated. After hundreds at Oakland lost their jobs in late November, the FAA and the Alameda County Central Labor Council had to organize food distribution to insure that they wouldn’t go hungry over the holidays.
Corporate designers of the new screening system were well rewarded, however. According to a letter from the American Association of Airport Executives to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, Boeing got $500 million from the TSA–funds earmarked for purchasing explosives-detection equipment–to pay for its training program. Boeing promptly subcontracted the work.
Since the implementation of the new federal law late last year, the composition of the new screener work force has radically changed. “At the top 100 airports, which employed 80 percent of the screeners, it was a majority-minority work force,” according to SEIU researcher Robert Masciola. TSA reports that the new work force is 61 percent white, and only 31 percent of new hires are women. Of the original 30,000 screeners, only around 4,500 were rehired, according to the TSA. The real number, says AFGE organizer Peter Winch, could be lower.
Yet it turns out that federalizing the work force was no guarantee of good working conditions–or passenger safety. The TSA hired many former military and law-enforcement personnel into management positions, which, according to one screener at New York’s JFK Airport, has created a culture of “do what you’re told, and don’t ask questions.” While regulations call for forty hours of classroom education and sixty hours of job training, many new hires were thrown onto the lines with much less. In Pittsburgh, new hires worked forty-eight-hour weeks through the holidays, their one day off switched on the whim of supervisors. Mandatory overtime was a constant at JFK and La Guardia airports, where some screeners put in seven-day weeks during the same period and 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 already have 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 compensation, the TSA set up “pay bands” between $24,000 and $36,000 a year, instead of the normal scale. Unlike with other federal workers, supervisors unilaterally determine the actual salary, and since the new year, everyone has started at the bottom. Probation for new hires lasts a year.
Despite the insecurity, these conditions quickly convinced many to organize. By mid-February, AFGE had filed petitions to bargain for 6,000 workers at La Guardia, Baltimore, Orlando, Chicago Midway, JFK, and ten other airports and organizing committees were preparing petitions at several more. That was when Loy issued his January 9 order prohibiting collective bargaining.
When AFGE challenged the order the very next day, the TSA responded by arguing that even if it were not upheld, screeners should still be blocked from forming unions airport by airport. Instead, they should be required by the Feds to form one national bargaining unit–a huge obstacle. Tellingly, one of the TSA’s execs is Clifford Hardt, Federal Express’s director for special projects, and this was precisely the strategy used by FedEx when its own workers tried to organize. After Congress killed that drive by mandating that the workers organize nationally, Hardt boasted to the Sacramento Bee that “we couldn’t have done what we did if they hadn’t torn down established procedures.”
But instead of accepting the fate dealt to FedEx workers, AFGE challenged Loy’s ban by setting up a national union for screeners, headed by its national president, Bobby Harnage.
AFGE and the 50,000-plus new federal screeners are up against the Bush Administration’s new war on labor, justified in the name of national security. Few unions have chosen to challenge the new rationale directly, opting instead for more limited arguments that question whether changes sought by the Administration are necessary and fair, and whether they violate union rights. But once the logic that labor organizing poses a threat to national security is accepted, almost any crackdown on workers–especially immigrant workers–becomes justifiable.
The TSA is using the new mantra to great effect to thwart the latest organizing efforts. TSA spokesperson Chris Rhatigan told Airport News in January that “collective bargaining would be incompatible with the nation’s safety.” In the same article, TSA representative Nico Melendez was even more blunt: “Security is paramount and collective bargaining could cripple the system.”
Unions organized two huge Solidarity Day demonstrations in the early 1980s after Ronald Reagan signaled his labor offensive by busting the air traffic controllers’ union. But they have yet to mount a similar mass response to defend the screeners or to question the antilabor uses of “national security.” This timidity hardly puts the Administration on notice that labor intends an all-out battle to resist, and it seems unlikely that Bush and his corporate allies will be deterred by anything less.