War on bin Laden -- or Unions?

Bush's battle against terrorism now bars some federal labor activities

 Jeanell Walker looked forward to a crowded work calendar as the new year began. After all, the 25-year federal employee wore two hats in the U.S. attorney's office in downtown Houston. She's a financial litigation agent for the government as well as president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3966.

Her union duties include directing collective bargaining and grievance procedures for AFGE local members, who are support staffers for federal prosecutors. In fact, owing to the increasing union demands on her time, Walker was preparing to negotiate with the Justice Department to become a full-time union rep.

All that changed last week when newly installed U.S. Attorney Mike Shelby called Walker into his office on Monday afternoon. He informed her that President George W. Bush had just issued an executive order suspending union activities in certain Justice Department offices involved in national security efforts. Shelby followed that up with a teleconference to deliver the news to the workers in his Southern District of Texas offices.

Shelby gets high marks for his handling of the Bush order.
Deron Neblett
Shelby gets high marks for his handling of the Bush order.

"We are still going to be guided by the principles of fairness and equity, and we are going to treat each other with civility and respect," Shelby told them. "This is not going to affect how [support staff] are treated in any way."

Bush had used a provision in the Federal Labor-Management Relations Program to exempt five law enforcement and security offices from regulations allowing workers to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. In addition to six unionized U.S. attorney offices around the country, the order also applies to the U.S. Central Bureau of Interpol, the National Drug Intelligence Center, the Criminal Division of the Justice Department and the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review.

Shelby explains the brief order: "The president has determined that the union activities are potentially inconsistent with the operations of those offices and agencies that are engaged in the investigation and prosecution of matters involving national security."

Shelby stressed that the order does not imply that union activities created security problems or interfered with the fight against terrorism.

"Nobody is suggesting that unions in general or this union ever acted as an impediment…This isn't some grab by the president for power or something. He is following the law as it exists and exercising his discretion in the manner that the executive branch does."

Shelby says the executive order was greeted with statements of support by Walker and other staffers. Perhaps so, but the union leader told The Insider she was initially "appalled."

"There was no need for it," says Walker. "It does take away a lot of our rights that I felt we deserved. Even though we are in the Department of Justice, justice may not always cover the support staff."

Walker explains that before the union's founding in 1987, secretaries, paralegals and other employees had few workplace protections in a system dominated by lawyers.

"If a support staffer went against an attorney, the support staffer was always wrong, even if the attorney belittled her or cussed her out and kicked her out of the office or threw staples at her," recalls Walker.

The union president did praise Shelby's handling of the situation.

"This guy has been up front with me; he's not afraid of the press, he's fair, he's sincere," says Walker. "He's going to tell the truth and do the right thing, professionally and ethically. That makes a difference [from] a U.S. attorney that's not doing the right thing and hiding behind something."

Reflecting that openness, Shelby permitted Walker to speak freely with the media about the executive order.

"Right now I'm trying to find out where I go from here, because we have money in our legal fund to help employees, as far as jobs, grievances, whatever," says Walker. "So I'm going to be relying a lot on Mike to help get me there."

National AFGE executives are less understanding about the president's order. District 10 National Vice President Roy Flores of San Antonio accuses the Bush administration of using the national emergency as a pretext to further its pro-big business, anti-labor agenda. Union officials are considering a lawsuit challenging the order. Judging by the past, their prospects are not encouraging.

In the mid-'80s, Ronald Reagan issued a similar executive order that removed the U.S. Marshals Service from union eligibility. AFGE fought that measure, but courts opined that it was within the president's broad discretion in such matters.

"We're going to try to see if we can take this thing to court," Flores says of the latest order. "But we don't want to take it to court if we can't win."

Flores says Bush officials have continually worked to undermine unions in both the public and private sectors. "I think it's just an attack on government employees and unions," says Flores, "trying to destroy what it's taken us years and years to accomplish."

The anti-terrorism 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.

Heidi Ho! Ho! Ho!

It hasn't been the best of times for GOP consultant Heidi Lange. Late last year, her marriage to state District Judge Scott Link foundered almost before it began, resulting in an equally quickie divorce. Then last week Lange found herself embroiled in an embarrassing ballot snafu. She submitted GOP primary filing papers for a client, 270th District Court incumbent Brent Gamble, but accidentally mislabeled them for the 190th District Court, the former perch of resigned jurist John Devine.

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