NEW YORK – A type of neighborhood anti-terror program launched by the Bush administration will be up and active this month in 10 cities across the country and some of those recruited could be neighborhood truck drivers, utility employees and train conductors.
Those are just some of the jobs taken by Teamsters union members, which has signed up to help the Justice Department with its Operation TIPS.
TIPS -- the Terrorism Information and Prevention System -- is one of the core elements of President Bush's Citizen Corps Program. The national system for reporting suspicious and potentially terrorist-related activity is predicated on the assistance of do-good local citizens who would be in positions to witness unusual or suspicious activity in public places. Volunteers will hand tips over to the Justice Department via a toll-free hotline or online.
The Teamsters union is throwing its support behind Operation TIPS not only as a means to show its nonpartisan stripes, but to lend an effort to homeland security, said Teamsters spokesman Rob Black.
Teamsters President James Hoffa -- re-elected last November to run one of the nation's oldest and largest unions -- "made clear" at the end of June during a meeting with Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge that "the Teamsters fully support Operation TIPS," Black said.
"Mr. Hoffa said that Teamster members can be the eyes and ears on the war on terrorism," he added.
But groups like the American Civil Liberties Union say that asking workers who have access to private residences to report possible suspicious activity could turn neighbors against each other and generate thousands of unreasonable and unwarranted charges against innocent people.
"The administration apparently wants to implement a program that will turn local cable or gas or electrical technicians into government-sanctioned peeping toms," Rachel King, an ACLU legislative counsel, said in a statement.
The ACLU is even providing forms to citizens to encourage them to write to their utility companies protesting their involvement in TIPS.
The Teamsters' support of TIPS, however, is not attributable solely to its Good Samaritanism. The union, which has traditionally leaned more Democratic, wants to demonstrate that the labor group should not be written off as only supportive of Democratic initiatives.
"The fact is that since Mr. Hoffa took office, he's made it extremely clear that on the legislative and political strategy, that the Teamsters will have no permanent friends, only permanent interests," Black said. "With regards to the Bush administration, that is exactly what we have done."
The Teamsters are doing more than supporting TIPS to show they should not be taken advantage of as a Democratic union.
The group has supported a mixed bag of political priorities. It has gone from supporting Bush's idea to drill for oil in Alaska, to opposing Bush's pet priority: fast-track trade negotiating authority. The group also fought the administration over safety standards for trucks crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Our approach is not to buddy up to one party or the other, but it's to build a Teamster majority at all levels of government," Black said.
It is building its majority in part by donating more to Republican campaigns than it has done in the past. During the 2000 election cycle, the group donated $2.9 million to various candidates; 93 percent went to Democratic candidates and only 7 percent went to Republicans.
But so far in the 2002 election cycle, Teamsters have donated $1.2 million -- 85 percent of which has gone toward Democratic candidates and 15 percent to Republicans.
Hoffa recently said in an interview with The Washington Times that he is considering endorsing Jeb Bush, the president's brother, for a second term as Florida's governor. The Teamsters are also endorsing a number of other Republican candidates, such as gubernatorial candidates George Pataki in New York and Bob Taft in Ohio. Hoffa also told the Times the Teamsters have more access to the Bush White House than to the Clinton White House.