Lieberman: Preserve Homeland Security Workers’ Rights

WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Senators Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, held a press conference today to highlight the importance of preserving existing workplace protections for employees in the new Department of Homeland Security. The Senators were joined by border patrol agent Mark Hall, who was retaliated against for publicizing security vulnerabilities, and Mike Staples, President of the Arlington Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Association, and a rescue worker at the Pentagon on September 11. Following is the text of Senator Lieberman’s remarks.

Welcome. It’s a pleasure stand today alongside two public servants who are union members working everyday to protect our nation’s security, to talk about how we plan to build a strong domestic defense agency together without compromising their personal economic security

We can’t stand by silently when we hear people, including President Bush, claim that protecting the homeland is somehow incompatible with maintaining the union rights of 50,000 employees who will be transferred into the new department.

The position the President has taken is a dangerous distraction and detour from our urgent, shared mission here: to build an accountable, efficient, and effective Department of Homeland Security.

We have a good bill in the Senate that gives the President at least 90 percent of what he asked for—which, I might add, was 90 percent of what we called for in our initial legislation. This is no time to let ourselves be divided by a partisan ideological sideshow that’s only peripherally related to homeland security.

We stand together, across party lines, in our commitment to create this department. Let’s not let this unreasonable rancor about the rights of federal workers fray our unity.

The second problem is that it’s just not right. The fact is, union rights are not an obstacle to building the best possible Homeland Security Department we can build. And to insist that they are, as the President has, is an insult to the good job that those unionized employees do, and a threat to the economic security their unions provide them.

That’s the message that the public servants who are with us today can help convey. Union rights aren’t the problem here. Those who seek to strip away workers security under the pretense of homeland security are the problem.

The public servants who risked and lost their lives on September 11th, including hundreds of police officers and firefighters, were union members. That didn’t limit their sense of duty and courage, and Mike Stapples can attest to that. And Mark Hall, the border patrol agent who’s with us today, is a union member. That hasn’t hurt his performance. In fact, it saved his job when he lost it after exposing those vulnerabilities in our border security. And we’re fortunate that today, as a result of those union protections, he’s back on the border—not on the sidelines of the homeland security fight.

President Bush is fond of using the term “management flexibility” as the justification for the restrictions on union and civil service rights he wants to permit. But the fact is, our bill would provide the Secretary new flexibilities to manage the work force that have been agreed on by the unions and our committee. Our proposal allows the secretary to bring people on outside of civil service rules when necessary for homeland security; and make other valuable changes that will help the new department hire, retain, and reward the best talent.

All of those reforms represent a meaningful modernization of the way federal agencies are managed. What we say on union rights is simple. From 1979 on, the last five Presidents have had the authority to take away the collective bargaining rights of particular departments or subdivisions by executive order, if and when they decide national security is at stake.

The union rights of these 50,000 employees who will be transferred into the new department have never been targeted for removal. Neither President Carter, or President Reagan, the first President Bush, President Clinton, nor this President Bush in the first year and a half he’s been in office, has determined that the union membership of these federal workers in any way has hampered their ability to do their job.

So we say in this bill that came out of committee, when these employees become part of the new department, they keep their collective bargaining rights—unless their job is changed, and there’s a national security rationale for taking those rights away. In that event, the Secretary can remove collective bargaining rights on a case-by-case basis. He just has to say why.

It’s hard for me to understand why some people object to that or want more rights to deprive workers of their rights. They seem to believe the way to build a strong department of homeland security is to start out by weakening the foundation of the department—which is the sense of commitment, morale, devotion, and economic security.

I think our obligation is to work with these dedicated federal employees, not to work against them from the get go. Thank you.