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 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
"Even though we can bargain, things are still stacked against us," Bonner
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
"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."