National security, or war on workers?

OAKLAND, Calif. – Like many Filipinos living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Erlinda Valencia found a job at the airport, screening carry-on bags for passengers. She worked for Argenbright Security for 14 years, most of that time at a minimum-wage job, barely able to support her family.

Two years ago, organizers from the Service Employees International Union began talking to the screeners. She decided to get involved and eventually became a leader in the campaign that brought the union in. She remembers: “It seemed to us all that for the first time we had a real future.”

Immigrants and minorities have been concentrated in screener jobs. After Sept. 11, they were an easy target. In short order Bush proposed, and Congress passed, legislation requiring that screeners be federal employees. That could have been a good thing for Valencia and her coworkers – or at least it used to be a good thing.

But Congress required that screeners be citizens, and Valencia, like some 800 of her coworkers, had never become one. So just as she and her coworkers finally made their jobs capable of supporting a family, they are losing them.

By federalizing the workforce, the government in effect busted recently-organized unions and fired their leaders. Bush’s hostility towards unions has been evident since he took office. But since Sept. 11 his administration has used national security as a pretext for questioning the right of workers to strike, to bargain effectively or even to have a union at all.

The administration’s use of national security for moves against unions predates the Sept. 11 attacks. On March 9, 2001, Bush told 10,000 workers at Northwest Airlines they couldn’t strike for 60 days. His action eliminated any incentive for the airline to negotiate, and it broke off negotiations.

Invoking “cooling-off periods” (in effect, a temporary ban on strikes), and the appointment of presidential emergency boards with power to mandate a settlement, has become a Bush hallmark. He did it again last December at United Airlines, where 15,000 mechanics had voted almost unanimously to strike. Airline unions are now battling a Senate proposal to allow the Secretary of Transportation to impose contract settlements on airline workers, effectively eliminating their right to strike.

But implicit invocation of national security became a reality with the proposal to establish a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that passed the House in July. It would allow the Secretary of Homeland Security to write new employment rules, essentially exempting any group in the department from existing civil service regulations, which govern pay grades, promotion and hiring systems, ban discrimination and provide whistleblower and other job rights. The Senate refused to enact any bill before adjournment and the issue will be debated when Congress returns.

In a dramatic preview of what lies in store, the administration ruled in January that nearly 1,000 workers in the Department of Justice were ineligible for union membership or representation.

The DHS would be huge, encompassing 170,000 workers, thousands of whom currently belong to 17 different unions in 50 bargaining units. Mitchell Daniels, director of the Office of Management and Budget recently declared that the Homeland Security model might “eventually help us untie managerial talent across the executive branch.” The federal workplace, in other words, would come to look much like Enron’s.

The flexibility rationale was rejected by Bobby Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, who declared that “the administration is overlooking the tremendous desire of government employees to make DHS work perfectly, because of their pride in the country and in their work. Our members don’t theorize about improving security; they live it because of their own experiences with terrorism, both in Oklahoma City and on Sept. 11.”

Over the summer the use of national security as a pretext for violating those rights took an enormous leap forward. As the contract between West Coast longshore workers, represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and their employer, the Pacific Maritime Association, expired on July 31, the administration began to intervene directly.

According to Clarence Thomas, secretary-treasurer of ILWU Local 10, Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao both told the union’s bargaining committee that the administration was prepared to prevent any strike. At the time they made clear that Bush at least would invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, under which striking longshore workers would be ordered to return to work for 80 days.

Department of Labor sources told The Los Angeles Times that the union’s coastwide bargaining structure might be declared an illegal monopoly. All West Coast ports have worked under a single contract since the end of the 1934 general maritime strike, in which the ILWU was born. The single agreement not only equalized conditions, but has given union members a great deal of bargaining leverage, since a strike closes all ports at the same time. The threatened administration action would mean that if the union struck one port, shippers could simply load and unload their cargo in another, making a strike pointless.

When President Reagan used the military to replace striking air traffic controllers in 1981, imprisoning the union’s leaders for conducting an illegal strike, two decades of bitter industrial conflict followed, with large corporations viewing Reagan’s action as an invitation to permanently replace striking workers.

Long before negotiations began, shipping companies and corporations dependent on trans-Pacific vessels, like The Gap, Mattel and Home Depot, formed the West Coast Waterfront Coalition and approached the Bush administration for help. The government then set up a task force, headed by White House advisor Carlos Bonilla, to meet with them. Wages and benefits were never the primary issue in these negotiations. The hourly rate for longshore workers ranges from $27.68/hr to $33.48/hr – about the same as a plumber or electrician. And while these are good wages in terms of the U.S. industrial average, the shipping companies are not claiming poverty in negotiations.

What they would like, however, is to keep certain workers out of the union – the vessel planners who tell the cranes where to put every shipping container, the clerical workers who help track container movement, and the drivers who haul containers in and out of the ports. Workers in these categories in many ports have already joined the ILWU, or tried to, attracted by its high wage rates. The union wants to include them in all ports, to make up for the potential loss of jobs among the clerks who currently track cargo manually. PMA negotiators have said no. The union looks at this as an issue of its own survival.

“As work changes, some jobs disappear,

while others increase,” explains ILWU spokesperson Steve Stallone. “Right now our jobs are the ones disappearing. When the companies say they don’t want our members doing these new jobs, it’s like saying they want the union to disappear, too.”

All the Bush proposals have the same intent – to make a waterfront strike impossible. But their long-term effect would extend far beyond the docks. The use of national security as a pretext for militarizing the workplace and replacing strikers could affect any union. Any strike halting the continued operation of an industry, or large profitable enterprise, could be defined as such a threat to national security, and made illegal.

PMA based its strategy on this philosophy. Early on, it sponsored a steady media drumbeat announcing that a waterfront strike would send the economy into a tailspin. One study made by Martin Associates and paid for by the PMA, predicted losses of $1 billion a day. The study was widely quoted in the mass media as negotiations became more difficult by the time the existing ILWU contract expired.

When the union refused to be provoked into a strike, the PMA simply locked workers out of the terminals in late September, accusing them of a slowdown. Once they were locked out, the employers then demanded Bush invoke Taft-Hartley, and after 10 days, got what they wanted when the Bush administration got a federal judge to order the union to work under its old contract, with no interruption, for 80 days.

The administration’s legal brief voiced a startling new philosophy to defend the action, holding that all commercial cargo could be considered important to the military, not just goods intended for military use abroad. “The DoD (Department of Defense) increasingly relies upon commercial items and practices to meet its requirements,” Defense Secretary Rumsfeld stated. “Raw materials, medical supplies, replacement parts and components, as well as everyday subsistance needs of our armed forces, are just some of the essential military cargo provided by commerical contractors.”

Behind the rationale of national security – to keep the cargo moving, in this case – is a much more class-specific one – to use the existing atmosphere to make it even more difficult for unions to function effectively in bargaining, in strikes, and in organizing new workers. Immigrant workers like Valencia, for instance, have been the workforce most active in labor organizing for the last decade in states like California, Texas and New York. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the Social Security Administration has sent out a wave of letters to employers, listing the names of employees whose Social Security numbers don’t correspond to the SSA database. Thousands of workers have been fired as a result.

In 2001, the agency sent out 110,000 such letters. This year it plans to increase it to 750,000.

In airports across the country, the post-Sept. 11 climate provided a new impetus for raids and deportations. Operation Tarmac has resulted in the arrest of over 1,000 workers. While federal authorities admit that none of these people are accused of terrorist activity, U.S. Attorney Debra Yang claimed that “we now realize that we must strengthen security at our local airports in order to ensure the safety of the traveling public.”

The net effect of this enforcement effort has been to increase the pressure on undocumented workers to avoid doing anything that might antagonize employers, especially organizing a union. When it becomes more risky and difficult for these workers to organize, or even to hold a job at all, they settle for lower wages. And when the price of immigrant labor goes down as a result, so do the wages for everyone else.

The vast increase in immigration enforcement has a big effect on those unions which have made a strategic alliance with immigrant communities in order to organize industries like building services, food preparation, hotels, meatpacking, farm labor and others. By making it more difficult and risky for those workers to organize, the administration is in effect helping employers resist unionization.

Sometimes that help has been more than implicit. A late-August raid at the Sea-Tac International Airport south of Seattle led to the arrest of workers at the Sky Chef facility that prepares on-board meals for airlines. Those arrests took place in the middle of bargaining between the Hotel Employees union and the company. The union claims that INS agents disguised themselves by wearing company uniforms, and that workers were called to an employee meeting, where they were identified and picked up. Some arrested workers had worked as long as 10 years at the facility, which ironically is owned by a foreign airline, Lufthansa.

The national security atmosphere, and its conscious use by the administration, is having a growing effect on unions in the most vital areas of their activity. With a possible war against Iraq on the horizon, this use of national security will spread.

“I think there’s more to come,” said Frank Larkin, a spokesperson for the Machinists union. “It’s outrageous to use national security to divide the country by union and non-union. And I think it can only get sharper if there’s a war in Iraq. The hand’s already been dealt by the administration. They already believe we’re in a state of war.”

Reprinted with permission of the author. An earlier version of this article was published in American Prospect.