|October 10, 2002|
By Paul E. Almeida, President, Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO
Soon the Senate will debate President Bush’s proposal to bar union cards from the Homeland Security Department. The notion that union membership threatens our national security is an anathema to the lives and dedication of millions of Americans.
That perverse notion flies in the face of history. It forgets, all too quickly, the ultimate sacrifice by hundreds of union members, firefighters, police, paramedics and others only a year ago at Ground Zero. Union membership did not stop them from doing their jobs. Instead, it helped to build the trust, mutual reliance, and dedication that led to their heroic acts.
For over 90 years, through two world wars and other military conflicts, federal workers—and workers on federal contracts—who are also union members, have carried the highest security clearances. I know, because I was one of them.
Seventeen unions represent about 30 percent of the 170,000 workers in the 22 agencies that the new Department will combine. The majority of these union workers are in just four agencies: the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Customs Service, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and the Coast Guard. These union members have performed their duties with utmost dedication for over 50 years.
Outside the proposed Department, civilian federal employees—who are also union members—at such agencies as the Department of Defense and NASA, support our military and space infrastructure. Scientists, engineers, technicians, machinists, and skilled craftsman hold our highest security clearances along with their union cards.
As an electrical designer for a private engineering firm, I held a Q clearance, secret and top secret, for different federal agencies, while holding a membership card in the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, AFL-CIO (IFPTE). Founded in 1918 as a federal union in our nation’s shipyards, IFPTE’s members help ensure the safety of America and the world.
Federal workers, and civilians working on federal projects, have been quick to place the national interest first. They make sure their unions do likewise. During World War II, for example, IFPTE cancelled its national convention to avoid taking workers from the war efforts.
Instead of creating an obstacle to national service, union membership provides an asset to the country as a whole. It builds trust and unity among federal employees and contract workers. It enables them to speak out for doing the job right. And it insulates them from political winds.
Many of the unions that represent federal workers draw their members from the military services. Ex-navy nuclear engineers, machinists, and skilled workers move from military service to civilian roles. Their dedication does not evaporate because they turn in their uniforms and become eligible for a union card.
During the Gulf War, as reserve units were called up, union members put down their tools and put their uniforms back on. When the war was over, the reservists returned to their union jobs. Whether fighting in the Gulf or doing repairs in the bowels of a submarine, they brought to bear the same dedication.
As the Senate debates whether to allow union cards in the Department of Homeland Security, its members should remember that dedication. The Senate should honor the memory of the union members who gave their lives on 9/11, in two world wars, and in countless other emergencies.
In a country that counts the freedom of association among its basic rights, barring union cards from the Homeland Security Department would insult its workers, weaken its operations, and by any other name be union busting.