If asked to choose between what's good for the country and what's good for unions, most Democrats have no troubling picking sides. Last week's House debate on a bill to create a Department of Homeland Security certainly proved the point. A majority of Democrats voted to restrict the president's authority to exempt some federal workers from collective bargaining agreements in the interests of national security. Republicans, joined by some conservative Democrats, defeated the measure in the final bill, but now, Senate Democrat leaders have stalled consideration of the legislation until after the August recess, vowing to put union rights first and foremost.
You can almost hear Woody Guthrie wailing from the grave, "Which side are you on, which side are you on?" and a chorus of Democrats happily responding, "I'll stick with the union/ 'Til every battle's won." The difference, of course, is that this isn't 1931 Harlan County, Ky., and federal workers aren't exactly poor coal miners in the midst of the Great Depression, the inspiration for the famous labor ballad. The union "rights" the Democrats are so anxious to protect have more to do with public employee unions' political clout than with improving onerous working conditions or poor pay.
Unions spent an estimated $800 million on political action in 2000, much of it hidden and unreported. And the lion's share went to Democrats. The Center for Public Integrity, a liberal interest group, reports that unions comprise 12 of the top 20 donors to political parties at the federal and local level. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) alone gave almost $8 million in cash to the Democratic Party in 2000, not to mention nearly $2.5 million to Democratic candidates and the uncounted millions more in campaign "volunteers," many of whom are on the union payroll. And much of this money comes from involuntary union dues, which members must pay in most states just for the privilege of working.
No wonder so many Democrats feel beholden to the unions -- after all, union money elected them. But now the Democrats are sticking with the unions at the cost of better security for all Americans. The new Department of Homeland Security will eventually encompass most of the law enforcement agencies charged with protecting our borders and securing our airports, nuclear plants, water treatment facilities and power plants. But if current union work rules and grievance procedures remain in place, federal managers won't have the authority to remove incompetent workers without lengthy measures that could cost not only time and money but lives. Nor will federal managers be able to reward the best and most productive workers with the highest pay, which most employers in the private sector do as a matter of course, or transfer employees when necessary.
When the Immigration and Naturalization Service decided earlier this year to transfer some 300 Border Patrol agents from the Mexican to the Canadian border, which was largely unprotected prior to Sept. 11, it ran into problems with the union. Under the union contract, employees could refuse assignment to a different geographic location if it lasted more than 30 days, which made it difficult to meet the immediate need for more agents up north.
What happens if a newly federalized airport baggage screener falls asleep on the job, or a border agent shows up drunk, or a customs agent becomes careless in searching foreign travelers? In the current climate, they ought to be sent packing immediately, but that won't happen if their union reps can use the union contract to protect them. At the very least, a union contract will make it more difficult and time consuming to weed out bad employees at a time when the nation can least afford it.
Every president since Jimmy Carter has had the right to override federal government collective bargaining agreements if he determined that national security required it. President Bush deserves no less and has threatened to veto any bill that restricts that right.
Their ties to the unions seem to be clouding many Democrats' judgment on this issue. But the Senate Democratic leadership may have outwitted themselves by delaying the vote on the Homeland Security Department until after the August recess. The extra month will allow the voters back home, including a good many patriotic union members, time to let their elected leaders know that they put the nation's interests first.