Flush With Victory, Federal Unions Fight Each Other

Flush With Victory, Federal Unions Fight Each Other
By Shawn Zeller, CQ Staff
Union victories these days don’t come much bigger than the Homeland Security Department’s decision in February to abandon plans for more restrictive collective-A-bargaining rules for its employees. If only the aftermath had been as peaceful.

Membership in Homeland Security's Largest Unions: Click Here to View Chart

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) had joined forces to fight the rules that President Bush demanded and Congress authorized six years ago, when it built the department. The unions successfully delayed the labor rules in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006 and — once their Democratic allies took control of Congress last year — put the proposed changes on ice when Congress finished its catchall spending appropriations in December and left out any money to implement the rules.

Having concluded the legal battle, however, the two largest unions at Homeland Security turned on one another in their rush to sign up new members at the department — created by the merger of 22 existing agencies and bureaus — with each union also trying to steal members from the other.

“We had a long-term truce with them, but now they are doing all kinds of things to come after us,” says Peter Winch, a national organizer with AFGE who oversees the union’s outreach to Homeland Security workers.

The truce, which Winch says came about in the early 1990s after a membership war at the Social Security Administration, held until Homeland Security executives, after merging customs inspectors who were members of NTEU with immigration inspectors who were members of AFGE into one unit, forced a union election. AFGE wanted to try to persuade the agency to accept joint representation of the inspectors. NTEU, whose members in the inspection division outnumbered its rivals, refused. Soon thereafter, NTEU won the election, thereby stripping about 6,000 members from the AFGE rolls.

The battle has escalated since, with much of the infighting centering on the Transportation Security Administration. Under the 2001 law creating the TSA, its employees are not entitled to collective-bargaining rights. But the two unions have been vying to sign them up nonetheless in the hope that Congress will overturn the prohibition.

HARD BARGAIN: The unions are competing to represent thousands of TSA airport screeners. (GETTY IMAGES \ JUSTIN SULLIVAN)

In February, AFGE claimed that 800 TSA employees at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, who had been represented by NTEU, had switched sides. NTEU President Colleen Kelley questioned the number of defections from her group.

At times, the dispute has been unusually public and rancorous, with the unions cranking out competing news releases on their accomplishments. After Kelley said last month that she wanted Congress to provide a 3.9 percent pay raise for federal employees in 2009, AFGE responded a week later by upping the ante and proposing a 4.4 percent boost. And when the NTEU announced that it was forming a chapter at Kennedy, AFGE President John Gage derided the bid as “amusing and appalling.”

Democratic congressional leaders, meanwhile, have renewed their efforts to lift the ban on union bargaining in the TSA. They tried last year but dropped the effort after Republicans resisted and the White House said Bush would veto the proposal if it passed. The Democratic presidential rivals, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, have each told union leaders they would support TSA bargaining rights should they be elected.

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