Federal Diary: That unsafe feeling finds expression at Treasury union forum

A letter, above, from President Obama to NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley, right, spoke of the risks faced by federal workers.
A letter, above, from President Obama to NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley, right, spoke of the risks faced by federal workers.
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By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Delegates to the National Treasury Employees Union legislative conference converged on the District on Tuesday, charged up and ready to push the organization's agenda on Capitol Hill.

After hearing from union leaders and supportive members of Congress during the morning session, the energized NTEU representatives left the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel for an afternoon of congressional lobbying on a variety of issues, some of which have been around for quite a while.

Yet, beneath the placard-waving, picture-posing and feel-good speeches was a solemn undercurrent. There was an unsettled feeling, even among people who work in secure buildings, that being a federal employee isn't as safe as it used to be.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who packs a lot of power in a small package, voiced that concern. She knows how to fire up a crowd, but she wasn't reaching for applause lines as she repeatedly told the delegates that she worries about the personal safety of federal workers.

"As one looks at the news, we can see that being on the civil service puts you in great danger. Look at what happened in Oklahoma more than 10 years ago when Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building and over 168 people died," she said. She's worried, she added, because of "what happened the other day [Feb. 18 in Austin] when a poor deranged man took his airplane and drove it into a building, and he was aiming at the IRS agents.

"I worry about you. I worry about you on the job. I worry about you being on the front line."

President Obama sent a letter to NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley in time for the conference, but it made no mention of the union's legislative priorities, many, if not all, of which, the administration supports.

Instead, the president used his time and ink to talk about how "the events of recent weeks have again reminded us of the risks that Federal civilian employees face in service to our Nation. We are grateful to these employees for their dedication to enforcing laws and managing important programs that help all Americans."

It's worth noting that Obama's letter speaks of risk not just to law enforcement officers but also to the average Frankie or Flo Fed who could be hit by a plane while working in an office.

That concern for the personal safety of federal workers was soberly demonstrated with a candlelight vigil that NTEU held at the National Law Enforcement Memorial on Tuesday evening. Though the vigil's focus was Customs and Border Protection officers who have given their lives in the line of duty, thoughts turned to the Pentagon officers, Marvin Carraway and Jeffrey Amos, who were wounded, fortunately not seriously, in a shootout last week that left attacker John Patrick Bedell dead.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, did not attend the vigil but said in remarks prepared for it that he would be remiss "if I did not also take the opportunity to recognize and thank the thousands of public servants who dedicate their lives every day and every night to keep us all from harm, much like the fallen heroes we commemorate tonight."

Robert Rosas was a Border Patrol agent and now is among the fallen. He was shot and killed in Campo, Calif., in July.

Though legislation was on the conference agenda, Kelley spent much of her speech on the Austin assault. She spoke of the Internal Revenue Service employees, and others, who managed small and large acts of courage after A. Joseph Stack deliberately flew his plane into a building with tax offices. Stack apparently was angry with the government, the IRS in particular.

A union statement said one IRS worker "aided his disabled colleagues to reach safety; two others led co-workers out by helping break a window with a four-foot-long crowbar, allowing them to reach a ladder rescuers had put up; yet another stood by a door in a blackened room, calling out to those who were dazed: 'Come to me. Come to the sound of my voice'; and before he made his way out of the dangerously-damaged building, a manager made sure everyone in his area had gotten out."

Vernon Hunter, an IRS employee, didn't get out. He died on duty that day.

Kelley visited with IRS employees a few days after the attack. "Witnessing their courage and resilience was a humbling experience for me," she said, "and one that gives me new inspiration to carry out our work today."

Work. That reminds me of the legislative work that's really the focal point of the NTEU gathering this week. At the top of the union's legislative priority list are collective bargaining rights for transportation security officers. NTEU is pushing legislation that would give the officers those rights and civil service protections.

But even here, safety is an issue. Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), the bill's sponsor, told the conference that making sure those officers have workplace protections "will make our skies safer, will make our airports safer and will make our nation safer."

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