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The Union Busters

… by Jerome Doolittle

Suppose that on Monday, January 7, President George W. Bush had branded hundreds of Justice Department employees as potential security risks because they were union members?

Might we have expected a question or two at next day’s White House press briefing? Would the networks, perhaps, have been at least mildly interested? Or the newspapers?

Apparently not, because on January 7 President Bush did exactly that to some five hundred labor union members who work in United States Attorneys’ offices, Interpol’s U.S. branch, the Criminal Division, the National Drug Intelligence Center, and the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review.

Mr. Bush’s order said that since these offices “have as a primary function intelligence, counterintelligence, investigative, or national security work,” the presence of unionized workers would not be “consistent with national security requirements and considerations.”

The White House press release and the President’s executive order might as well have concerned the temporary closing of a lock on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The subject was not brought up at the next day’s White House press briefing or at any one since. It struck none of the networks as news that the president of the United States had just said, in effect, that union members were national security risks. No one was curious enough to ask why no attorney general before John Ashcroft had uncovered this lurking threat to the Homeland. Where, for instance, was Edwin Meese the Third?

The first story in the national press didn’t appear until the weekend, in the Chicago Tribune. By that time, Mr. Ashcroft had already hit the ground running, reporter Naftali Bendavid’s story revealed:

“While government lawyers are not unionized, the order covers at least several hundred support staffers, such as secretaries, paralegals and clerks.

“Thousands of others also will be prevented from collective bargaining . . . The executive order was issued Monday. The following day the Justice Department notified the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that one of its bargaining units ‘ceases to exist’ and that another local ‘no longer represents the non-professional employees of the Criminal Division.’

“On Wednesday, a memo informed affected workers that ‘the previously signed collective bargaining agreement between the union and the office is no longer in effect.’”

Not until January 16 did any other major paper pay attention, and then it was in a short article well buried on an inside page of the New York Times. In the second sentence, reporter Steven Greenhouse disposed immediately of the only persuasive argument Mr. Ashcroft might have advanced for his union-busting. “Federal law*,” he wrote, “bans strikes by federal employees.”

Instead, the Times story continued, “White House officials said Mr. Bush had issued his order out of concern that union contracts could restrict the ability of workers in the Justice Department to protect Americans and national security.”

Mr. Greenhouse ran this theory by Steven Kreisberg of the American Federation of State, Country and Municipal Employees, who replied, “A lot of these Justice Department workers have been members of unions for twenty years and there’s never been an allegation of a problem. It’s a very cynical use of the September 11 tragedy by an anti-union administration.”

Government Executive magazine followed up on the Times story by talking to Phil Kete, general counsel at the American Federation of Government Employees. Mr. Kete said, “AFGE has represented people in the U.S. Attorneys’ offices, in some cases, for more than twenty years. Not once has any U.S. Attorney suggested that this representation made it more difficult, much less made it impossible, to carry out the national security tasks of the office.”

By now the story had received just enough attention in the print media to make it old news, and so it’s probably safe to assume that the last we will hear of the matter was said January 17 by Tim Fleck of the Houston Press in a column about the impact of Mr. Bush’s order on the local U.S. Attorney’s office.

We conclude our national coverage with Mr. Fleck, who wrote, “The anti-terrorist campaign may have thus far failed to nab Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, but it seems to have effectively put a bunch of pesky union chapters on ice.”

It is interesting to consider what the papers and the evening news might have done with the story if Mr. Bush and Mr. Ashcroft had smeared members of the American Civil Liberties Union as security risks. Or members of the Federalist Society, for that matter. Or the National Rifle Association, or the National Council of Churches.

But Mr. Bush and Mr. Ashcroft wouldn’t have thought there was any risk in the particular case of labor unions. They would have assumed that any right-thinking citizen, which is the only kind their parents would allow them to play with, knows full well of what horrors a union member is capable.

Golly, even the liberal press knows that! Many years ago my brother Bill, now an honest reporter but then a newspaper publisher, attended the annual meeting of the American Newspaper Publishers Association (closed, as usual, to reporters).

The appearance of Kay Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, was met with a standing ovation. When the tumult and the shouting died and everyone was settling down to the creamed chicken, Bill said something to his fellow publishers about the touching tribute paid to the woman whose newspaper had just broken the Watergate story.

“Watergate, hell,” one of those damned liberals said. “That little lady broke the pressmen’s union.”

*Title 5, Section 7311 and Title 18, Section 1918 of the U.S. Code.

January, 2002


Copyright © 2004 by Jerome Doolittle