Some civilian Pentagon bosses haven’t gotten Biden’s pro-union message
Workers at Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois

ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. —Democratic President Joe Biden often pledges to be “the most pro-union president ever.” He instituted a comprehensive plan to accomplish that via executive orders, since Congress hasn’t OK d the Protect The Right To Organize Act, which he pushes.

But some civilian Pentagon bosses “haven’t gotten the message,” says Government Employees (AFGE) President Everett Kelley. They seem to think their workers at the historic Rock Island, Ill., Arsenal in northwestern Illinois, which looms over the Mississippi River, are the enemy.

So the bosses, defying Biden and his mandate, are imposing a particularly nasty contract on Government Employees Local 2119 and its 400 workers, with no meaningful bargaining from management’s side for more than a year. Bargaining began in 2019.

The clash in Rock Island is important. How can workers willingly toil when being clobbered by arsenal bosses, Kelley asked in an April 13 speech in a park across the river in Iowa. Local leaders echoed his theme.

Left unsaid: This isn’t the first time, or even the largest instance, of defense civilian brass mistreating its workers, or worse. The largest such instance was under Biden’s predecessor, Republican Donald Trump.

Kelley’s predecessors atop AFGE waged and won a years-long legal battle against the Trump DOD’s plans to heavily tilt the personnel system against all civilian workers.

And while DOD is big on military morale, the Rock Island bosses’ contract imposition, and their attitude, Kelley said, isn’t.

“The partnership here at Rock Island Arsenal is broken. It is taking a toll not just on the employees, but on members of the military that we serve,” he warned after an informational picket line and a rally at the Iowa park. “It’s a shame to have to come here and see the union rights of the proud federal employees serving our military being trampled.

“They still want to run the tired, old anti-union playbook,” said Kelley, himself both a longtime active veteran and a past local president who knows the difference between good and bad relations.

“They think they can ignore the complaints of workers here about air quality. They seem to think for some reason OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standards don’t apply here at Rock Island Arsenal. I guess they also don’t think federal labor law applies to them either.”

Combined, he said, they treat workers “like garbage.”

“Management has tried to change the contract unilaterally, without the union’s input. They’ve made changes after they’ve reached agreement. They’ve made a total mockery of the negotiations process. At the end of the day, it’s this simple: They think they can ram this contract down the throats of the members here.”

While Kelley and local union officers and stewards denounced the crammed-down contract, they lack leverage, outside the court of public opinion. Federal law covering labor-management relations within the government—including the Pentagon civilians—bans strikes. Wages and benefits are set government-wide, via schedules. That leaves informational picketing and resulting publicity.

“They think we aren’t going to raise our voices. They think we aren’t going to rally. They think we aren’t going to call our lawmakers. They think we aren’t ready for this fight. They must not know who we are. Let’s remind them,” Kelley concluded.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.