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By Dick Meister

It's hard to imagine any right more important to Americans than having an effective voice in setting their pay and working conditions. Yet President Bush is claiming the exercise of that basic right by some federal employees would seriously undermine national security.

We shouldn't be fooled by that argument. It's just part of the obvious attempt by Bush and his reactionary Republican colleagues to weaken unions and give him arbitrary power in dealing with government workers.

At issue are the employment rights of those who will work in the Bush administration's proposed Homeland Security Department -- 170,000 people from 22 existing federal agencies. The president is demanding "flexibility" in dealing with department employees -- the freedom to employ only "the right people, hold them accountable" and exempt their bosses from federal labor-management statutes "when it serves our national interest."

Guess who alone would pick "the right people." Guess who alone would decide what "accountability" entails and what would be in the "national interest."

Why, yes, you're right. That would be taken care of by the officials Bush appointed to run the department. Naturally they'd know what's best for the country. And anyone who wanted a job helping protect the country had better not question their terms of employment.

Of course department officials should set those terms unilaterally and, just as they would hire and promote workers solely on their terms, also demote or fire people at any time for any reason -- including union activity or other attempts to challenge them.

Several administration officials have suggested that, like employees of the new Transportation Security Administration, Homeland Security employees should not have the right to union representation. At the least, President Bush wants the authority to revoke their union rights at any time he declares it necessary on national security grounds.

Bush already has revoked the union rights and union contracts of several thousand secretaries, clerks and other employees of the Justice Department's Criminal Division and all 93 U.S. Attorneys' offices nationwide. Bush did that last January under the law that, while allowing federal workers to unionize, also allows a president to deny that right in agencies that deal with "intelligence, counter-intelligence or national security work."

Bush also fired all seven members of the panel that's the last resort for federal workers who've reached an impasse in bargaining with their agency employers. The panel tries to forge a compromise agreement or, in extreme cases, dictate a settlement. Those named by Bush to replace the fired panelists are all notably anti-labor, headed by Becky Norton Dunlop, vice president of the notoriously right-wing Heritage Foundation.

Union representatives rightly fear that Bush is threatening the union rights of all two million federal employees.

Beth Moten, legislative director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 30,000 of those who'd work in Homeland Security, thinks "they are trying to restructure the federal workforce in such a way that they never have to deal with a union."

Certainly no one could now possibly believe that Bush and his Republican cohorts in Congress are sincere in the praise for firefighters, police, construction workers and other unionized workers and public employees that they've mouthed repeatedly since Sept. 11, 2001.

The Republican-controlled House already has passed the bill that would create the Homeland Security Department on Bush's blatantly anti-labor terms. But so far a majority in the Democratically-controlled Senate is demanding that the department's workers be guaranteed the same basic union rights as other workers -- including, of course, the heroes of Sept. 11. The bill, you can be sure, will be a major issue in the new Congress.

Copyright 2002 Dick Meister , a San Francisco-based freelance columnist who has covered labor and political issues for four decades.

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