WASHINGTON – Lawmakers applauded a Senate compromise on worker’s rights that could clear the way for a Homeland Security bill, but union officials remained “very concerned” Wednesday that the agreement is not strong enough to protect workers in the proposed Cabinet agency.
A bill creating the Department of Homeland Security has been stalled in the Senate over a provision that would have let the president strip union representation from the 170,000 workers in the agency, about 48,000 of whom are expected to be eligible for union membership.
The compromise reached Tuesday would let the president deny union rights, but only if a majority of workers in a given office primarily work with “intelligence, counter intelligence or investigative work directly related to terrorism investigation” and if employees responsibilities “materially” change in the new organization.
“You can’t just say `national security’ and go `Boom you’re out of there,'” said Jeff Neal, an aide for Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., who crafted the compromise. “We’re saying the president must meet fairly legitimate conditions (to deny union rights).”
But far from seeing it as the light at the end of the tunnel, one union representative called the compromise the “headlight of a train coming down the tracks.”
“The ability of the president to fire people is still very much alive and very much a threat,” said T.J. Bonner, the president of the National Border Patrol Council. The council is a division of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 9,000 workers who could be moved into the new agency.
Though the Chafee language gives union members collective bargaining rights for pay and personnel system issues, Bonner said the president could still fire workers at will.
“Do the duties of a worker change in this department? Yes, that’s a given. Do they work directly with terrorism? If they do, does it really interfere with national security?” he said.
The president has had the authority since the Carter administration to strip union rights from an entire division if one employee belonged to a union and worked with matters of national security. Neal said the compromise language would “marginally narrow” that power.
Neal said the deal would let union representatives review and comment on proposed personnel changes for 60 days and would require written agreements between unions and the secretary of Homeland Security.
But Bonner said management still has the upper hand. The Federal Services Impasses Panel, designed to mediate between unions and management, is not impartial because all seven members were appointed by President Bush, he said.
“Even though we can bargain, things are still stacked against us,” Bonner said.
He said that the new language does not even require the president to explain why a union member with homeland security duties poses a threat to national safety.
“We don’t feel this amendment has been modified to protect us,” he said.
But Neal said the compromise is not designed to please everyone.
“At this point, this issue is at a rock and a hard place,” he said. “If both sides are reasonably unhappy, then you’ve struck a good compromise.”
Jacque Simon, a public policy director for AFGE, said the compromise needs improvement, but she is trying to be optimistic about the amendment’s chances after Senate passage.
“It could be worse,” she said. “It was a tight fight to get it this far, but the president still has to sign it.”
Neal said he doubts that President Bush would veto the Homeland Security bill because of this amendment. But Bonner said he expects more arguments before any bill is signed.
“Had you told me six months ago that the big issues would be federal workers’ rights, I’d say, `No way. We’re talking about the Department of Homeland Security. We need to focus of national safety.’ This is just bewildering to me,” Bonner said. “We’re very concerned.”