Ron Ault, a brash, outspoken Arkansas shipbuilder turned labor leader, changed the fortunes of federal unions with a phone call. President of the giant Metal Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, Ault had come to the Virginia suburbs of Washington in February 2004 for the first meeting between Pentagon managers and union reps about the new personnel system and work rules the department had won authority to write several months before in the fiscal 2004 National Defense Authorization Act.
As union leaders tell it, Pentagon officials were dictatorial. They made it clear that the meetings, which Congress required, would be run their way. There would be no real negotiation on the new rules. Ginger Groeber, at the time Defense deputy undersecretary for civilian personnel policy, said existing collective bargaining agreements would be annulled.
"You might as well throw gasoline on me and set me on fire when you do me that way," Ault says of that first session. "There's no way you're going to tell me the process I'm going to participate in without some kind of input from me."
Unions had lobbied hard against the new law, but in the wake of Sept. 11, the argument for managerial flexibility won out. Congress did, however, include a clause that required the Pentagon to preserve collective bargaining-largely undefined-for 750,000 Defense civilian employees. And they required managers to include unions in writing the regulations, a process called "meet-and-confer." So, though union leaders were skeptical going into the meeting, they were not prepared for the level of anti-union talk they heard.
As the meeting continued, Ault rose from his chair and rushed into the hallway, where he called the public relations director of the Metal Trades Department-a coalition of 5 million members of 20 unions-and dictated an angry letter. He had it faxed to the meeting and every union leader in attendance signed it. "This was at 5 o'clock in the afternoon," Ault says. "The next morning, every member of Congress had one personally in their lap."
The letter might have had marginal effect on the National Security Personnel System, but it was the beginning of a powerful new partnership between federal and private sector unions.
Cynical ActSix years after it began, the Bush administration effort to curb the influence of federal unions is floundering. In large part, that's because President Bush's policies had an unintended side effect-they united fractious unions and garnered outside support. Unfortunately for the Bush team, their anti-union campaign also coincided with an upswing in the power of public sector unions within the labor movement.
Federal unions can't bargain over pay and they can't strike, but they do have what former Office of Personnel Management official George Nesterczuk calls "nuisance value." Nesterczuk, mastermind of the new Defense Department personnel system, says unions can tie up a policy by bargaining over it for ages in hundreds of local bargaining units. For example, it took years for every bargaining unit to negotiate the use of official charge cards for travel expenses at Defense.
One of Bush's first official acts as president was an executive order dissolving labor-management partnerships developed in the Clinton years. Then came proposed reforms at the Homeland Security and Defense departments, whose employees comprise half the federal workforce. One of the tenets of reform was that department officials should be able to void collective bargaining agreements at any time, even after they were negotiated.
Stewart Acuff, organizing director of the AFL-CIO, calls the attempt to change collective bargaining rules "the most cynical act this administration has done." "The whole labor movement saw that as an assault," he says. "And we saw it for what it was: a very, incredibly cynical attempt to greatly weaken the labor movement starting where they had the first opportunity, which is in the federal government."
On Dec. 8, 2006, at a rally in Washington a month after Democrats took over Congress, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney laid out his "demands" for the first 100 hours of the next session. Still high on electoral success, he sought the usual labor objectives: a higher minimum wage, lower prescription drug prices, trade laws that stem outsourcing of U.S. jobs and increased student loans. But he added a new one: "Restore the collective bargaining rights stolen from federal employees by the Bush administration," Sweeney said.
Gathering MomentumSweeney's speech was just one event during an AFL-CIO weekend conference intended to keep up momentum after the electoral victory. The final speaker was Kimberly Kraynak, who took the stage to a standing ovation in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency. She is a Transportation Security Administration security officer in Pittsburgh who is organizing workers in spite of the administration's refusal to let her do so. In 2003, then-TSA Administrator James Loy issued a directive that TSA screeners are prohibited from collective bargaining under the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act. He said collective bargaining would hinder the national security role that screeners play.
"We will win the fight for these folks," Acuff proclaimed as Kraynak stepped to the podium. The American Federation of Government Employees, an AFL-CIO affiliate and the largest federal union with about 225,000 dues-paying members and contracts covering about 600,000 employees, is organizing TSA workers even though they can't yet collectively bargain.
Kraynak, whose father and grandfather were both leaders in the United Steelworkers of America, came to Washington to ask the AFL-CIO to support her efforts. "Other agencies within the De-partment of Homeland Security such as Border Patrol and Customs and Immigration are permitted to unionize," she said. "Apparently, allowing airport screeners the right to form a union is a risk to national security."
The audience hung on her words, booing that line, applauding others and giving her a standing ovation. As she walked off the stage, Tim Waters of Pittsburgh, the Steelworkers' rapid response director, was one of many to approach her. "Let me know if there is anything I can do to help," Waters said. "We're sending our people through that airport all the time. There should be something we can do."
The AFL-CIO already is doing something. In November, the United Nations International Labor Office issued a ruling that the 43,000 baggage screeners at TSA have the right to bargain collectively. AFGE, with help from an AFL-CIO grant of nearly $300,000, petitioned the United Nations on behalf of a few hundred TSA members it already had signed up.
Sweeney and AFGE President John Gage issued a joint statement the day the U.N. ruling came out. "The AFL-CIO and AFGE join the international community in its recognition that national security and worker rights are not mutually exclusive," Sweeney and Gage said. "At a time when airport screeners need a voice on the job to highlight where improvements can be made in our national security, the Bush administration continues to stifle dialogue."
And then, in January, came another victory. The House Democratic majority passed its very first piece of legislation, enacting leftover recommendations of the 9/11 commission. Folded into the bill was language granting TSA screeners collective bargaining rights. The White House strongly opposed the provision. Noting that the British government immediately imposed new procedures for screeners after foiling an airline bombing plot in August 2006, administration officials said they would not be able to unilaterally change workplace rules if U.S. screeners were unionized.
AFL-CIO representatives say they are putting the coalition's weight behind AFGE's efforts to organize TSA because it's a human rights issue. But at a time when the United Auto Workers membership has dropped from 700,000 in 2001 to 550,000 in 2005, the 43,000 potential new union members at TSA would be a welcome addition.
Strength in NumbersWhile the UAW was losing 150,000 members, AFGE gained about 25,000. Public sector unions are becoming increasingly important to the labor movement. Union membership in the private sector reached a low of 7.8 percent in 2005. At the same time, more than 36 percent of federal, state and local government workers were unionized, according to a September report from the anti-union Evergreen Freedom Foundation. "The realization that this is where unions are going is just starting to dawn on people in the last couple of years," said Michael Reitz, one of the report's authors. "It won't be very long before a majority of union members nationwide are in government."
Gage, who has a seat on the AFL-CIO executive board, says: "When you're on the AFL [board], you try to look at all of labor, and certainly we've been able to be somewhat of a steady influence, in terms of membership anyway. The steelworkers, some of these great unions, have really been hit."
There's another factor in the numbers game. When the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters and five other unions took 6 million members out of the AFL-CIO and created the Change to Win coalition in September 2005, most federal unions stayed. Federal employees make up a bigger chunk of those remaining in the AFL-CIO.
About 40 percent of the AFL-CIO is made up of public sector unions now; some 360,000 members are nonpostal federal employees. (The National Treasury Employees Union, with about 78,000 members the second-largest federal union, is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.) What's more, at least 16 of 50 AFL-CIO member unions have federal members.
Some are in places you wouldn't expect. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has 42,000 federal members, the Seafarers International Union of North America has 5,000 and the American Federation of Teachers has 1,000 in overseas Defense Department schools. Only 10 AFL-CIO unions are larger than AFGE. Only two gained more members than AFGE between 2001 and 2005 and both were public sector: the Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The public sector's increasing clout comes as labor's overall influence dwindles. As senior analyst Bret Jacobson of the anti-labor group, the Center for Union Facts, put it: "The whole pie has shrunk, but the government has a bigger piece of it." And federal employee unions still are a relatively small part of the labor movement. AFSCME's numbers overshadow AFGE by a long shot, accounting for much of the public sector's dominance. AFSCME, however, understands the problems of federal workers as perhaps few other unions can.
36 Unions, 750,000 EmployeesWith the changing demographics of the labor movement as a backdrop, Ault went to work forming a new coalition. Along with some of the other big federal unions-including AFGE, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, and the National Federation of Federal Employees, which is affiliated with the huge International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers-he created the United Defense Workers Coalition. It has one rule: no raiding fellow unions. And with 36 unions representing 750,000 Defense Department employees, that means a lot.
Matthew Biggs, legislative director for the Professional and Technical Engineers who has served as the spokesman for the coalition since its inception, says that rule seeks to prevent one or two unions from cutting a deal with the Pentagon and swapping collective bargaining rights for more members. "We wanted to guard against any kind of divide and conquer," says Biggs. "Can you imagine what it would be like if we had even one union going to Capitol Hill saying this [National Security Personnel System] would be great?"
With one exception, there has been no raiding among Defense Department unions since the coalition began. The National Association of Independent Labor was kicked out of the coalition for alleged raiding, but still sits in on the meetings and could choose to come back in. Raiding uses up precious dues dollars and weakens unions as a whole. NFFE lost its Bureau of Indian Affairs teachers, among others, to the AFT in a raid. That's why it chose to affiliate with the Machinists and gain protection as part of the AFL-CIO. "It's a snowball effect," says NFFE president Rick Brown. "You lose membership, you lose revenue. Then you spend dues dollars fending off unions raiding you."
The coalition has another rule for making decisions: everything by consensus. "It's all voluntary," says Brown. "You can get up and walk away anytime you want. You're not compelled, you're not chartered. The commitment of the top folks of all unions-these are very strong-willed, Type A personalities that have to compromise and acquiesce at times-to keep that going for almost three years; I've never seen anything like it."
Those Type A personalities collected a total of $50,000 from a number of member unions quickly at the outset of the coalition. Ault asked AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka to match the contribution, which he did. Then Ault asked Sweeney to lend AFL-CIO legislative representative Byron Charlton to lead the coalition. "We decided after a couple of meetings we needed a chairperson and not necessarily a person who had a dog in the fight," Ault says.
Ault and Biggs say Sweeney was supportive from the get-go. "He understood it very well," Biggs says. "It didn't take much convincing. The only part that took convincing was encouraging him to put Byron in charge of a coalition that included non-AFL unions." Sweeney ultimately agreed and with $100,000 in the bank, Charlton took over.
A Taste of VictoryPower in numbers has driven some wins for the unions. The most obvious is that four years after the first law was passed, new collective bargaining rules at the Homeland Security and Defense departments have not been enacted, and new civilian personnel systems have not taken hold in either organization. After unions jointly sued both departments, a number of judges have ruled the systems don't meet the intent of Congress to protect collective bargaining.
Out of their relationship in the coalition, the Professional and Technical Engineers, AFGE, NFFE and the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers formed a mini-coalition to combat a planned public-private job competition to operate locks and dams for the Army Corps of Engineers. In mid-November, Corps officials called off the competition, saying they will undertake an internal reorganization instead.
"Just working with these people for three years now, you get to going out to lunch, you talk about business," Biggs says. "We were out to lunch with IBEW and NFFE and [found out that] IBEW had a relationship with Trent Lott. So we all went in and talked to Sen. Lott" about opposing the Army Corps' competition.
When William H. Young, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, responded to Bush's signing of the first postal reform bill in decades, he pointed out in a message to NALC members that the bill "preserves our collective bargaining rights-rights that many workers at Homeland Security and the Department of Defense lost earlier in the Bush years."
Even employees at the Government Accountability Office, which employs white-collar accountants and statisticians, are in talks to unionize. Their agency has been at the forefront of personnel reforms, leaving the General Schedule pay system in 2005 in favor of pay for performance.
After the midterm elections, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson wrote to John Gage saying that the election of Democrat Ciro Rodriguez over Republican incumbent Henry Bonilla in the 23rd district of Texas was AFGE's doing. Rodriguez had served in Congress before and was very supportive of federal employee issues. "I want to thank you, John, because you believed it could be done and you provided the money and staff needed to make it happen," Chavez-Thompson said. "I lay this victory on the doorstep of AFGE. I want to personally tell you how grateful I am."
How much pull Big Labor will have in the 110th Congress is still unclear. But with the AFL-CIO bundling the reversal of collective bargaining rules in DHS, TSA and the Pentagon into its broader goals, federal unions have a real shot at regaining lost rights and a seat at the table in major departments.
Defense Coalition members gathered in the ceremonial courtroom of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Dec. 11 to hear their lawyers argue in another round of appeals on the Defense collective bargaining system. The three-judge panel will decide in the next several months whether the Pentagon must rewrite its rules and start the cycle of meet-and-confers all over again. This time, management will face an emboldened coalition of unions speaking with one voice.