National Security Concerns Wipe Out Union Rights at Mapping Agency

By Stephen Barr, Washington Post, Monday 10 February 2003; Page B02

The war against terrorism is forcing many federal agencies to reexamine how they do business. At the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the rethinking has led to the termination of union rights for more than 1,000 employees.

NIMA, created from eight defense and intelligence agencies in 1996, determined that the work of cartographers, digital imaging specialists, data management specialists and others has evolved into full-time intelligence work that directly affects national security.

As a result, NIMA Director James R. Clapper Jr., a retired Air Force lieutenant general, invoked his power to abolish collective bargaining rights at the agency Jan. 28.

“His decision was based on what happened since 9/11,” said Edward J. Obloy, NIMA's general counsel.

Under the law creating NIMA, the agency director has the authority to abolish bargaining units when the agency's jobs change and affect national security.

Clapper's action was consistent with recent decisions of the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which rejected union rights for employees who require access to classified information and facilities, Obloy said.

The elimination of collective bargaining rights at the intelligence agency is a setback for the American Federation of Government Employees, which has more than 215,000 members.

The union, which represented NIMA employees in Bethesda and St. Louis, was recently stopped from organizing more than 50,000 airport screeners at the Transportation Security Administration. Next year, AFGE also could lose representation rights at the new Department of Homeland Security, which has about 190,000 employees, if Secretary Tom Ridge determines it to be in the interests of national security.

When Congress created NIMA, it permitted unions to keep their bargaining rights because a substantial number of employees transferred from the Defense Mapping Agency, which was not a member of the intelligence community and allowed unions in the workplace. As a general rule, Congress has excluded employees in the intelligence community from unions. Presidents also have used their power to prohibit unions in some agencies or parts of agencies that conduct criminal investigations.

Bobby L. Harnage, AFGE's president, said “NIMA's mission has not changed” since the agency was created. “We are here to remind Clapper that the fight against terrorism, in which federal employees have always been on the front lines of the homeland, is about preserving our freedoms—including our right to organize—not destroying them,” Harnage said.

Obloy, however, said NIMA's mission has changed significantly since Clapper took office, just two days after terrorists slammed jetliners into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and a hijacked plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania in September 2001.

The order signed by Clapper, for example, said NIMA's Analysis and Production Directorate had undergone significant changes. Cartographers must now combine map and chart information with material provided by intelligence sources, the agency said.

Clapper's order said that 3,787 employees currently use secret material in their jobs and that 96 percent of the directorate's employees, including mapmakers, require access to “sensitive compartmented information at the top secret level” in order to do their jobs. Senators to Address AFGE Members

About 1,000 members of the American Federation of Government Employees are in Washington this week for the union's annual legislative conference. Speakers today include Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has expressed concerns that federal workers will not get a fair shake under the Bush administration's plan to determine whether more federal work can be turned over to contractors. Retirements

Jerry L. Hale, an information technology specialist at the Air Force Pentagon Communications Agency, will retire Feb. 22 after more than 27 years of service at the Defense Department.

Guy H. McMichael III, chief judge and chairman of the Board of Contract Appeals at the Veterans Affairs Department, retired Feb. 8. He served 25 years with the VA and six as general counsel of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.