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President Bush’s push to create a huge new Department of Homeland Security is causing insecurity among many federal employees — nowhere more than in South Florida. On grounds of national security, Bush has iced a nascent union for federal prosecutors being aggressively organized at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami. And he’s dissolved a handful of existing unions that represented about 500 Justice Department employees around the nation — including the 45-member Miami Local 512 of the American Federation of Government Employees. Local 512 had represented support personnel at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, including paralegals, clerks and secretaries, since the 1980s. Bush based his actions on an exemption in the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act which presupposes that unionized federal workers are an impediment to effective national security. That’s why labor leaders fear that what happened in Miami is the prelude to broader union busting by the White House once the homeland security reorganization of federal agencies is complete. Their principal concern is that thousands of unionized workers transferred to the Department of Homeland Security will be stripped of their right to organize and collectively bargain. That includes 12,000 U.S. Customs Service employees now represented by the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU). “They are using homeland security as an excuse to eliminate the rights of employees,” says NTEU president Colleen Kelley, whose 64-year-old union represents 150,000 workers in 25 federal agencies. “These Customs Service employees have done this work guarding our borders for decades and this has never been an issue.” The White House did not return phone calls seeking comment before deadline. The right of federal employees to organize is guaranteed under the Federal Service Labor Management Relations Statute, commonly known as the Civil Service Reform Act. But the law also allows the president to exclude certain employees from that protection if the “primary function” of their agency is “intelligence, counterintelligence, investigative or national security work.” Employees of the FBI, CIA, portions of the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Marshals Service and other investigative and intelligence agencies have long been prohibited under civil service law from joining a union. But the homeland security shuffle — the “most extensive reorganization of the federal government since the 1940s,” according to Bush — offered the Republican administration an opportunity to expand the exemption in the statutory right to join a union. Labor unions, including the NTEU, heavily backed Democrat Al Gore in his race against Bush. Along with the Customs Service, some of the agencies that have been mentioned for inclusion in the massive new federal security agency are the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Transportation Security Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. ORGANIZING CAUGHT FIRE The union organizing of federal prosecutors in Miami began in the spring of 2001. NTEU flyers identify the key issues as the need for flex time when prosecutors are not actually in court, compensatory time for overtime work, fair performance evaluation standards, objective standards for promotions, a uniform contract, a negotiated grievance procedure and the right to a union attorney at all disciplinary proceedings. The idea “caught fire” in Miami, says NTEU national counsel Jeff Friday. “Our plan was for the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office to be the first [unionized office] in the country,” he says. In a matter of months, Kelley says, about three-quarters of the 225 Assistant U.S. Attorneys, or AUSAs, wanted to join NTEU. The Department of Justice quickly opposed the unionizing efforts. Even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft’s staff asserted that the nation’s AUSAs were exempt from unionizing for national security reasons. On Jan. 7, President Bush ended the debate when, without fanfare, he issued Executive Order 13252. The order cited national security in specifically denying the right to union representation to all employees in each of the nation’s 93 U.S. Attorney Offices and to several other parts of the Justice Department, including the criminal division. On the day Bush signed his order, union activists were at a hearing before the Federal Labor Relations Authority in Miami to present testimony from attorneys in the office opposing the Justice Department’s blanket assertion of the national security exemption. They were prepared to testify that there were plenty of AUSAs whose work had nothing to do with terrorism or national security, Kelley says. “Our position was there were certainly a handful of people in terrorism work involving classified information about groups like al-Qaida,” Friday says. “But we had people there to testify about what they did every day — to show they did not meet the exclusion.” ASKED BUSH TO WITHDRAW ORDER Several members of Congress, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, quickly urged Bush to withdraw his order. In a letter, Leahy and three other senators said the order “suggests that workers who belong to unions are somehow less reliable and trustworthy when it comes to matters of national security.” Bitterness was apparent in the NTEU flyer sent to notify Miami activists about Bush’s order. “Evidently, the Executive Office of the United States Attorneys [in the Justice Department] was so concerned about NTEU prevailing that they sought this order from George Bush. The president has unreviewable discretion to issue these types of executive orders,” wrote Friday and co-national counsel Bill Harness. “NTEU must withdraw its petition seeking to represent you. We find it ironic that a president that is alleged by many to have stolen his own election, has now stolen yours,” Friday and Harness wrote. Sylvia Acosta, a paralegal assistant in the health care fraud unit who was president of AFGE Local 512 until the presidential order was issued, says she felt “blindsided. We were in the middle of negotiating a new contract and this hit us hard. Our grievance procedures were swept away.” “Don’t look for my vote next [election], Mr. Bush,” Acosta says. “Hey, that’s the bottom line, isn’t it?” U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis’ office sought to take a conciliatory position toward the union in the wake of Bush’s order, specifically praising Acosta and her union for having developed “an extraordinarily good relationship.” “The attacks of Sept. 11 redefined the mission of the Department of Justice,” Lewis’ office administrator Helen Grill wrote in a memo to staff a day after the order was issued. “Our first and overriding priority is now defending our nation and the citizens of America against terrorist attacks. President Bush’s executive order recognized the department’s role in matters of national security.” Given what’s already happened, union officials are worried about what’s next. The NTEU represents about 100,000 Internal Revenue Service workers who, as of now, are unaffected by the president’s partial ban on union membership among federal employees. “If they can eliminate the rights of these federal employees in a new federal department, who will be next that they decide shouldn’t have those rights?” NTEU president Kelley asks.

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