Magazine article The American Prospect

In the Name of National Security: Bush Declares War on Unions. (Gazette)

Magazine article The American Prospect

In the Name of National Security: Bush Declares War on Unions. (Gazette)

Article excerpt

ERLINDA VALENCIA CAME FROM the Philippines almost two decades ago. Like many Filipinos living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she found a minimum-wage job at the airport, screening passengers' carry-on bags.

Two years ago, organizers from the Service Employees International Union began talking to the screeners. Valencia decided to get involved and eventually became a leader in the campaign that brought in the union. "It seemed to us all that for the first time, we had a real future," she recalls. A new contract raised wages to more than $10 an hour, and harassment by managers abated.

Then the airplanes hit the twin towers in New York, and everything changed. In short order, legislation established a new Transportation Security Administration, which required that screeners be federal employees. That could have been a good thing for Valencia and her co-workers: Federal workers have decent salaries and federal regulations protect their right to belong to unions--at least they used to.

But the new law required that screeners be citizens, and Valencia had never become one. In fact, at San Francisco International Airport, more than 800 screeners are noncitizens. The Bush administration refused to establish any fast track to gaining citizenship that would have helped existing screeners qualify for new federalized jobs. So just when Valencia and her co-workers finally have turned their jobs into positions that can actually support a family, they will lose 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 when those jobs become part of Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security, that union-free status might become permanent.

The administration has been hostile toward unions ever since Bush took office, but since September 11 the White House has used national security time and again as a pretext for throwing into question the rights of workers to strike, to bargain effectively and even to have a union at all.

On March 9, 2001, a little more than a month after taking office, Bush issued an executive order in which he told 10,000 mechanics, plane cleaners and janitors at Northwest Airlines that they couldn't strike for 60 days. Bush set up the Presidential Emergency Board to make findings in the dispute, despite the fact that the mechanics' union contract had expired more than four years earlier. His action eliminated any incentive for the airline to negotiate, and it broke off talks with the union.

Invoking "cooling-off periods" (in effect, a temporary ban on strikes) and the appointment of such boards 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. This September, Bush officials followed up by telling United's unions that unless they agreed to even further concessions, the administration would withhold the $1.8 billion bailout the airline said it needed to avoid bankruptcy. Airline unions are now battling a Republican bill that would allow the secretary of transportation to impose contract settlements on workers, effectively eliminating their right to strike. Regardless of union rights, the administration has argued, the functioning of the air transportation industry is vital to the U.S. economy--the same argument used to justify the airline bailout package rushed through Congress weeks after September 11. Interruptions, whether by union action or financial insolvency, are viewed as threats to the economy and to the nation itself.

The administration's implicit use of national security as an anti-union device became explicit with its proposal to establish a Department of Homeland Security. …

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