WASHINGTON – The House voted Wednesday to transfer 170,000 employees from 22 agencies into a new Department of Homeland Security, brushing aside charges that the shift would make a “farce” of federal workers’ union rights.
The 299-121 vote came after months of debate over the bill, which is expected to be approved soon by the Senate. Twelve House members, including outgoing Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, did not vote on the measure.
Opponents had previously blocked passage over President Bush’s insistence that he be allowed to strip collective bargaining rights of workers in the new department if those rights interfered with national security. But lawmakers said that after Republican gains in the Nov. 5 elections, further challenges by the lame-duck Congress would be futile.
“The Democrats and the unions chose not to sign off on deals made before and they chose to gamble on the election. They lost that gamble,” said Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I. “We cannot continue to stall the creation of the department forever.”
Maryland’s House delegation voted 4-3 in favor of the bill, with Democratic Reps. Steny Hoyer of Mechanicsville, Albert Wynn of Mitchellville and Elijah Cummings of Baltimore opposing the measure. An aide in Morella’s office said she would have voted for the bill, but was presenting an award and could not get back to the Capitol in time to vote. The House in July passed a homeland security bill that had fewer union protections, which caused the measure to stall in the Senate. The bill passed Wednesday included compromise language backed by the White House.
But Wynn said the compromise is no compromise at all, stripping federal employees of civil service rights. Wynn, who represents the most federal workers in the nation, said employees who have union protection now should be able to keep it in the new department because their responsibilities would remain the same.
“Why then do these people become security risks?” Wynn asked. “Unfortunately, this bill puts the administration at war with federal employees.”
But Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, said it was just “common sense” that employees of the new department might lose some union rights.
“Federal employees are Americans first,” Bartlett said in a prepared statement.
An estimated 48,000 workers who would be shifted into the new department are now eligible for union representation.
Under the bill approved Wednesday, the president could remove collective bargaining rights of employees whose responsibilities materially change in the new department and who have critical roles in intelligence, counterintelligence or work directly related to terrorism investigation. But even those stipulations would not apply, if the president gave Congress 10 days notice of his intention to lift union rights.
The bill gives the union 30 days to discuss proposed personnel changes with the secretary of homeland security. If no agreement is reached, Congress is notified and another 30-day clock starts on discussions, which can include help from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
If there is still no agreement, however, the secretary can go ahead and make the changes.
Labor representatives attacked the “union-busting” bill.
“This is like having a dead body in the basement and hanging a 99-cent air freshener next to it hoping to get rid of the smell,” said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council for the American Federation of Government Employees. “This bill stinks.”
Bonner called the compromise a “tragedy for the American people” that would deter talented workers from joining the new department.
“Why would you want to work in a place where they can strip you of your rights?” Bonner asked. “I’m sure bin Laden is happy this will pass.”
American Federation of Government Employees spokeswoman Diane Witiak called the vote “politics at its worst.”
“It’s not going to create a better homeland security,” said Witiak, whose union represents more than 600,000 federal workers. “Instead of being able to speak out or speak up at the sight of failures, they’ll keep their mouths shut for fear of losing their jobs.”
National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley noted that the word “negotiate” is nowhere in the text of the legislation that she said “makes a farce of the process.”
“Their intent all along was never to work with the unions,” Kelley said.
Witiak and Bonner said that thousands of federal employees will leave public service for the private sector if they are forced into the new department.
“Congress should do what’s best for the American people, not what is politically correct,” Witiak said. “We’re going to go down fighting.”
But Neal said the time for negotiation and fighting is past.
“The president is going to get what he wants,” Neal said. “He’s offering you a fig leaf and you better take it or else you’ll be naked to the land.”