Union Dispute Is Threatening New Security Department
By Eric Aasen - The Dallas News
WASHINGTON - The push to establish a Department of Homeland Security before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has hit a snag over a 68-word, jargon-rich sentence in President Bush's 35-page bill.
Lawmakers have largely agreed to move existing federal agencies into the new Cabinet-level department, as Bush asked. But there is a vast gulf between congressional Demo-crats and the White House over how the language in question would affect the 170,000 federal workers who would be assigned to the new agency.
Unions fear "flexibility"
It would give executives the freedom to hire, fire and transfer employees quickly - a power the White House contends is paramount to responding quickly to national security threats.
The proposal would allow the administration to cut through the rigid rules that protect most federal civil servants. Union leaders fear that curtailing worker protections as part of the biggest government reorganization in half a century could feed a trend across the entire federal bureaucracy. But Bush says the new homeland security workers need not worry.
"The notion of flexibility will in no way undermine the basic rights of federal workers," he said last week. "The new secretary must have the freedom to get the right people in the right job at the right time, and to hold them accountable."
Union leaders and their congressional advocates argue that the department's workers, particularly the 50,000 now in unions, would be deprived of collective bargaining rights, protection against unlawful discrimination and whistle-blower protection. They also say the department's ability to adjust individual salaries would undermine across-the-board pay increases - hallmarks of unions - and perhaps even erode union membership.
"When they have this kind of unfettered power and discretion, they'll abuse it," said Jacque Simon, public policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 32,000 workers who would be assigned to the new department.
Senate shelved measure
The dispute, which has been the most contentious issue surrounding the homeland security debate, threatens passage of the legislation by the symbolic Sept. 11 deadline.
Although the bill passed by the House last week closely mirrors the blueprint unveiled in early June by Bush, the Senate is pushing for legislation that would limit the flexibility he seeks. Confronted with a White House veto threat, the Senate shelved the measure last week before heading off for a monthlong recess. Senate leaders say they remain hopeful the Senate will consider the measure in early September.
White House officials deny the legislation would carve out sweeping new presidential powers.
The president merely wants to extend to the new agency the limits on workers' rights that he can impose during times of national security threats, said Gordon Johndroe, White House homeland security spokesman. Every president since Jimmy Carter has exercised that right.
Source: Arizona Daily Star