WASHINGTON – President Bush makes the case that work rules protecting unionized federal employees impair his ability to improve homeland security. The examples he cites about impediments caused by red tape, however, are not as clear-cut as portrayed.
The battle between Democrats and Republicans over labor rights for a proposed Homeland Security Department's 170,000 workers has caused a six-week impasse on Senate legislation that would create the Cabinet agency to safeguard Americans from terror at home.
Bush wants the power to waive union agreements for national security reasons and to create a new personnel system he says would be more nimble and modern. Bush and the GOP portray a slow-footed federal civil service hamstrung by union work rules.
"We're stuck in the Senate because some senators want there to be a big, thick book of bureaucratic regulations to tell this administration and future administrations how to run the department,'' Bush said Monday at a Republican campaign rally in Waterford, Mich. "For the sake of national security, I ought to have the capacity, on a limited basis, to say, `Our national security is more important than some collective bargaining rights.'''
One claim frequently made by the GOP is that the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 12,000 prospective homeland security workers, sought to block the Customs Service from requiring inspectors to wear personal radiation detection devices.
Bush has brought the issue up repeatedly. At a recent fund-raiser in Boston, he said the union wanted to take to collective bargaining a proposal intended to prevent smuggling of weapons of mass destruction into the United States.
"It would have taken over a year to determine whether or not people could carry detection devices,'' Bush said. "That doesn't make any sense for me.''
The union denies that it ever refused or tried to delay, although it certainly raised questions.
According to an exchange of letters between the union and customs officials, the union suggested on Jan. 4 that the detectors continue to be used on a voluntary basis — as they had been for three years — and requested to negotiate. It would take up to six months to get the devices into the field in any case.
Customs quickly rejected the idea of keeping the devices voluntary, replying on Jan. 9 that it had the power to mandate them for all inspectors. Later in January, the two sides discussed fears about improper training and use of the detectors. In April, the union president, Colleen Kelley, told the Customs Service the union "does not object'' to the proposal.
Kelley insists claims to the contrary are "distortions and misinformation.''
"Opponents ought to have the courage not only to address the issue on its merits but to base their arguments on the facts,'' Kelley said.
Republicans also have cited what they call opposition by the same union to the Bush administration's color-coded terrorism warning system. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said it was "just about a perfect example of this kind of problem.''
In fact, the union filed an "unfair labor practice'' charge against the Customs Service on Sept. 18, complaining that the agency was issuing directives related to the new system "without first notifying the NTEU and affording it the opportunity to negotiate.''
The aim, Kelley said, was not to challenge the color-coded system but to ensure that Customs notified the union, as it is required to do when work conditions are changed. No union employees, she said, failed to follow new procedures under the alerts.
Other Republican contentions about the unions are a bit fuzzier.
It was claimed that border inspectors belonging to different unions could search only particular portions of vehicles — one line for trunks, another for passenger compartments and so on. The claim, repeated by Republicans and denied by Democrats, originated from a 1998 newspaper interview with President Clinton's former drug adviser, Barry McCaffrey.
Another contention involves supposed requirements that special Border Patrol task forces must be posted in areas near drug stores, dry cleaners, barber shops and other amenities.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss, recently poked fun at the idea. "Now that's a human need, but the other thing is, when you're being threatened by terrorists ... you've got to waive that sort of thing,'' Lott said.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., released a document rebutting the claim, saying the task forces are designed specifically to be posted anywhere on short notice and, where possible, to be provided vehicles so they can get to nearby restaurants and the like.
To Democrats, these union problem situations are "a total myth,'' in the words of Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, that are being used to avoid real debate about workers' rights.
"It's not about how bright the light is over their coffee pot or the color of their uniforms,'' Durbin said.
But to Republicans, they illustrate why the agency would not be able to function.
"What should come first, business as usual or national security?'' Gramm asked.