Lawmakers press Bush to rescind order curbing collective bargaining

Democratic lawmakers are calling on President Bush and the Justice Department to explain an executive order that stripped collective bargaining rights from 1,500 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives employees, and to repeal the order if they cannot.

"We reject the view that union membership undermines a worker's ability to effectively perform his or her job functions, particularly in regard to national security issues," wrote Sens. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.; Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., in a Dec. 4 letter to President Bush. "Unionized employees serve with great distinction in a range of national and homeland security positions."

The senators asked Bush to contact them by Dec. 9 to schedule a briefing on how the ATF employees' jobs affect national security. Jesse Broder Van Dyke, a spokesman for Akaka, on Tuesday said the committee was waiting for a response from the White House.

Many of the letter's signatories serve on committees that oversee federal workers or have constituents who are public servants: Lieberman chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Akaka leads that panel's federal workforce subcommittee. Mikulski represents Maryland, which has a large population of federal employees.

Bush issued the Nov. 26 executive order under authorities in the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, which allows the president to limit union rights for employees doing national security or intelligence work. President Carter issued the first such executive order in 1979, and Bush's directive reaffirmed that most of the 8,600 federal employees covered by Carter's order were not allowed to organize.

But Bush's decision to add the ATF employees to the list of excluded workers was a shift. Those employees had signed a new collective bargaining agreement as recently as April.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who also maintains a strong interest in federal employee issues, sent a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey on Dec. 5, asking him to explain the national security rationale for the order as well.

"It is my understanding that during the … negotiations [that led to the April contract], management did not raise a single issue regarding a need to exclude employees from the bargaining unit or any proposed provision of the contract that was a national security concern," Hoyer wrote.

The majority leader did not give Mukasey a specific deadline, but requested a "prompt response."

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents the ATF employees who lost their collective bargaining rights, most of whom work on licensing and compliance issues, praised both letters. NTEU President Colleen Kelley said she has contacted President-elect Barack Obama's transition team about the order. A spokesman for the team last week declined to comment on the order while the transition was under way.

"It is clear to us," Kelley said, "that the provisions of federal labor law can be applied to ATF in a manner consistent with national security requirements and considerations -- just as they have been for years."

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