Could President Obama unionize our armed forces? Our active duty military, comprising about 1.5 million servicemen and women, cannot be unionized under current law. But our full-time national defense includes more than 700,000 civilians who are integral to our military. These civilian Defense Department employees are already almost 60 percent unionized. This means that our entire full-time military, including civilians, is more than 20 percent unionized. As former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld told me: “Even the Department of Defense has come under the influence of unions.” Government unions are on our military bases and inside the Pentagon, determining workplace rules and norms, filing grievances, and influencing personnel decisions in these sensitive job sites.
What about national-security workers? The 1978 Civil Service Reform Act explicitly bars collective bargaining among CIA, FBI, NSA, and Secret Service employees. But many staffers who work for other sensitive security agencies have already been unionized.
Transportation Security Administration (TSA) baggage screeners could not bargain collectively until President Obama’s TSA Administrator, John Pistole, subjected them to unionization in 2011. Although less than 40 percent of TSA workers voted in the runoff election between two unions seeking to represent them, all 44,000 TSA baggage screeners today, and all future screeners hired will be spoken for by the winning union — the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) — absent an unlikely union-decertification election. That is how government unions work — once a union wins certification in a workplace, the union is the exclusive representative of that group of employees in perpetuity with no further vote required. Ever.
The unionization of TSA baggage screeners last year represents a further step toward unionizing all federal workers, no matter how critical their roles in preserving our national security. Perhaps even more surprising is that our Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was already 33 percent unionized—before TSA baggage screeners pushed Homeland Security employees unionized over 40 percent. Our Border Patrol agents, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) employees, our citizenship and immigration agents, our customs agents, and some Coast Guard employees are already unionized. The Department of Homeland Security is so unionized that according to its own labor-management forum meeting notes, 62 Homeland Security employees are paid with tax dollars to work full time as union officials, under a procedure called “official time.”
America’s safety is compromised when we allow government employee unions to represent our national-security personnel and get between these critical workers and their government employer. Unionizing these employees limits our government’s ability to deploy them as and where needed, thanks to mandatory union policies and work rules. The need for flexibility in using these essential workers in a crisis trumps any claim that these workers need union representation — particularly when their salaries and benefits are established by Congress, not negotiations. Also, organizing any group of employees makes strikes among them more likely, even if their contracts expressly forbid such labor actions. Because protecting America’s safety is one of the most essential federal functions, any practice that makes security breaches more likely steers the public into harm’s way and must be avoided.
Strikes are illegal for federal workers and many state and local government workers, but that does not prevent strikes from happening. New York City transit workers, Tacoma Washington teachers, Detroit teachers, and postal workers have all gone on strike illegally. When the Professional Air Traffic Controllers struck in 2011, in violation of federal law, PATCO president Robert Poli snapped: “The only illegal strike is an unsuccessful one.” PATCO’s strike was unsuccessful because President Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers who refused to follow his order to return to work. But how would another federal worker strike transpire on President Obama’s watch?
If national-security employee unions haven’t created enough policy concerns already, President Obama is giving government employee union unprecedented input into policies affecting the federal workplace. Early in his administration, President Obama issued Executive Order 13,522, which requires federal departments and agencies to consult with these unions before setting almost any workplace policy—even on matters over which these unions cannot lawfully bargain. Never before have government officials needed to first consult union officials before making workplace rules and personnel policies. It is hard to imagine what greater powers the president could give these unions over the federal workforce and workplace. The one certainty, however, is that greater union control will be on the agenda of a second Obama Administration.
As more and more sensitive civilian national security and military jobs are unionized, this sets the terrible precedent to change the law and unionize our active-duty GIs, CIA members, FBI agents, and any other federal security workers not yet captured by the labor bosses. While the government-employee unions would love to swell their ranks and dues income, Americans must resist the temptation to let any private interest, especially strike-happy unions, wrest control of our critical and sensitive government workplaces.
Mallory Factor is the John C. West Professor of International Politics and American Government at The Citadel. He is a political commentator, a Forbes columnist and the Senior Editor of Money and Politics for The Street.com. He is co-founder of the Monday Meeting, an influential group of conservative political leaders, journalists, donors, think tank heads, and grassroots leaders in New York City--the largest meeting of its type in America. He has written extensively on economic and financial issues for publications including the Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, National Review and newspapers nationwide. He has also appeared on numerous networks and cable stations including Fox News, CNBC, and Bloomberg to discuss finance and politics.