Published: October 13, 2003

Why Government Needs Unions: Dedicated, Professional Workers Crucial to Security


I have been president of the American Federation of Government Employees since August, after 21 years as an active leader with the union. But I've been an American all my life. As an American and a union leader, I'm concerned about the wholesale shift I'm seeing in our government.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: Federal employees and their unions are good for America and good for our government they're about safety and protecting the public.

Yet just 25 months after Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration purports that union membership is compromising national security. Unions have been representing federal workers for more than 40 years through the turbulent '60s, Watergate, the Cold War, and during numerous military campaigns, including the current war on terrorism. The professionally trained and highly skilled federal employees who belong to labor unions have never been inconsistent with national security.

The Bush administration has already begun the process of jeopardizing security and public services by removing collective bargaining and union rights in various agencies, including the U.S. attorneys' offices and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. It is no surprise that federal employees in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Veterans Affairs Department, the Defense Department and other agencies now find themselves challenging the administration's plans to dismantle civil service laws and hand some 850,000 positions to private companies.

At TSA, administration officials want to replace the current professional screener work force with the very same companies that ran airport security before and on Sept. 11, 2001. Further, a different company may run security at each airport, and larger airports may have competing companies working in the same terminal. At VA, hospitals built to serve veterans may be closed. Nine out of 10 full-time employees could lose their jobs and benefits under the president's privatization plans. At Defense, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is demanding the right to exempt some 720,000 federal employees from major civil service laws. Many of those employees also are veterans who proudly served their country in battle before answering the call to civilian public service.

Interestingly, the dismantling of civil service laws and the mass privatization plans have drawn international attention. After hearing news reports of workers at TSA and other federal agencies being mistreated by the government, as well as of AFGE's ongoing efforts to protect federal workers, the International Labour Organization (ILO) a United Nations agency approached AFGE.

AFGE has formally charged the U.S. government before the U.N. agency with violations of international labor standards. The precedent-setting complaint with the ILO charges administrations with denying eligible federal employees the fundamental right to freedom of association and the rights to organize and bargain collectively. AFGE has the support of the AFL-CIO, a federation of 65 U.S. labor unions and 13 million workers, and Public Services International, a federation of 600 labor unions and 20 million workers in 140 countries.

Ironically, each year the federal government spends $235 billion in taxpayers' money on contracts, goods and services. Nearly half of all government contract dollars go to just 43 companies. Many continually go over target costs and miss original deadlines. Large companies such as WorldCom, Arthur Andersen and Lockheed Martin were forced to pay large fines for wrongdoing. Administration officials want to turn over even more government jobs to these same corporations, in addition to privatizing the federal positions that monitor contractor abuses. Isn't that like the fox watching the hen house?

The real question for the American people is: What kind of government do we want? One staffed by professionals motivated by the public good, or one staffed by undercompensated employees of entities governed by the profit motive? Should taxpayer dollars be transferred en masse to the private sector, or should they be used to sustain a government of, for and by the people? And, if the government fails to treat and compensate its workers fairly, who will hold the line for the rest of America's working families?

John Gage is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.