State Department Apologizes for Calling Unionization a Security Threat

Mike Elk

Attacks on U.S. embassies, such as the 1983 bombing of Beirut, underscore the risks often inherent in working as a Locally Engaged/Employed staff member. (Wikifreund / Wikimedia Commons)

The Unit­ed States Depart­ment of State has a spe­cif­ic arm set up to pro­mote the rights of for­eign nation­als it employs over­seas: the State Department’s Office of Inter­na­tion­al Labor Affairs (ILA). Accord­ing to the State Department’s web­site, the ILA sup­ports inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized labor rights relat­ing to free­dom of asso­ci­a­tion, the right to col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, and the elim­i­na­tion of forced labor, child labor and discrimination.” 

Despite this mis­sion state­ment, the State Depart­ment has rebuffed efforts by for­eign-born over­seas work­ers to form unions, say­ing (con­tro­ver­sial­ly) in August that doing so would pose a threat to nation­al secu­ri­ty. How­ev­er, Work­ing In These Times has learned that at a pri­vate meet­ing with labor groups ear­li­er this month, the State Depart­ment opened the door to col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing by work­ers who per­form crit­i­cal ser­vices for the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment overseas.

More than 55,000 for­eign nation­als are direct­ly employed by the State Depart­ment or oth­er for­eign agen­cies at Amer­i­can embassies around the world. These work­ers, known as Local­ly Employed/​Engaged (LE) staff, do every­thing from gar­den­ing work to secu­ri­ty. Accord­ing to work­er advo­cates, some per­form work sim­i­lar to that of the Amer­i­can diplo­mats, such as prepar­ing reports on activ­i­ties occur­ring in that coun­try and pro­cess­ing visas. Because this work takes place on U.S. embassy grounds, activists feel that U.S. labor laws should apply to all embassy employ­ees. But LE staff have still been denied the right to col­lec­tive bargaining.

In 2009, a group of LE work­ers at for­eign began to form the Inter­na­tion­al For­eign Ser­vice Asso­ci­a­tion (IFSA) to advo­cate for bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions. In ear­ly 2013, IFSA decid­ed to link up with an Amer­i­can union housed with­in the AFL-CIO, the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Pro­fes­sion­al and Tech­ni­cal Engi­neers (IFPTE).

In inter­views with Work­ing In These Times, IFPTE union orga­niz­ers work­ing on behalf of IFSA described a host of prob­lems expe­ri­enced by LE staff, exac­er­bat­ed by the fact that IFSA has no abil­i­ty to for­mal­ly rep­re­sent work­ers’ desires to the State Depart­ment. Work­ers involved with IFSA say that their health, ben­e­fit and wage plans vary from embassy to embassy based on the bud­get set by the chief of mis­sion in a giv­en coun­try. Some say that they are paid dra­mat­i­cal­ly less than Amer­i­can for­eign ser­vice work­ers doing sim­i­lar work. Anoth­er big com­plaint, IFPTE rep­re­sen­ta­tives say, is that each embassy has its own pen­sion plan for staff, each of which is man­aged by the indi­vid­ual chief of mis­sion, with incon­sis­tent over­sight and work­er input. 

Cur­rent­ly, accord­ing to IFSA, employ­ees may only bring prob­lems regard­ing work issues — includ­ing con­di­tions, sched­ul­ing and over­sight of pen­sion plans — to the chief of mis­sion in their coun­try. There is no one in the Unit­ed States they can con­tact if the mis­sion chief does not address their grievances. 

These work­ers are in lim­bo. They go to the ambas­sador [chief of mis­sion] and he says my hands are tied,” says IFPTE union orga­niz­er Chris Lang­ford. The over­rid­ing theme that I keep get­ting from these folks is [that] there [is] nobody respon­si­ble for address­ing their issues and needs. There is no per­son respon­si­ble for the wel­fare of these employ­ees who are scat­tered through­out the world. … They have no access to the State Depart­ment in DC.” 

For the past year, IFSA has been work­ing with the state­side IFPTE to per­suade the State Depart­ment to allow the work­ers to have a union, or, fail­ing that, some approx­i­ma­tion of one — -an asso­ci­a­tion fund­ed by dues deduct­ed from work­ers’ pay­checks that engages in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing on their behalf. 

In August, the State Depart­ment Chief Labor-Man­age­ment Nego­tia­tor Steven J. Pol­son dis­missed a meet­ing request from IFPTE and IFSA to dis­cuss insti­tut­ing a union. Many in orga­nized labor were offend­ed by his ratio­nale: that any form of aunion could jeop­ar­dize nation­al secu­ri­ty. Pol­son wrote:

Union­iza­tion at diplo­mat­ic and con­sular mis­sions is fun­da­men­tal­ly incom­pat­i­ble with the basic func­tions and oper­a­tions of such mis­sions. This would direct­ly and sig­nif­i­cant­ly con­flict with the author­i­ty of the diplo­mat­ic mission’s Chief of Mis­sion and could frankly, put our for­eign rela­tions and nation­al secu­ri­ty at risk. If union rights were real­ized for LE staff, the exer­cise of such author­i­ties or rights would pose a real secu­ri­ty and counter-intel­li­gence threat to the Unit­ed States.

Even more dis­mis­sive­ly, Pol­son refused to meet with IFPTE-ITSA to dis­cuss col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing or dues check­off for their orga­ni­za­tions. In his August 9 let­ter, Pol­son con­tin­ued: The Depart­ment has no inter­est in pur­su­ing this dis­cus­sion fur­ther. We have three major Fed­er­al Unions rep­re­sent­ing sev­en dis­tinct bar­gain­ing units of direct hire Amer­i­cans with­in the Depart­ment. If we sought any con­ver­sa­tion about orga­niz­ing LE staff, we might be oblig­at­ed to approach any of them first.” 

Out­raged by the let­ter, IFPTE respond­ed on August 12 that Polson’s argu­ment about unions being a threat to nation­al secu­ri­ty puts the Admin­is­tra­tion in the posi­tion of say­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing is some­how asso­ci­at­ed with dis­loy­al­ty and un-Americanism.”

In spite of Pol­son’s resis­tance, IFPTE Sec­re­tary-Trea­sur­er Paul Shearon was able to arrange anoth­er meet­ing ear­li­er this month with high-lev­el State Depart­ment offi­cials: David Wade, the chief of staff for Sec­re­tary of State John Ker­ry, and Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Inter­na­tion­al Labor Affairs Bar­bara Shailor. (Full dis­clo­sure: I worked for Shailor’s hus­band, Robert Borosage, at the Insti­tute for America’s Future from 2009 – 2010). 

Promis­ing­ly, the State Depart­ment seemed recep­tive to mak­ing changes to Polson’s stat­ed pol­i­cy at the meet­ing, accord­ing to Shearon and Lang­ford, both of whom were in attendance.

The State Depart­ment pledged to work with IFPTE-ITSA to dis­cuss prob­lems with employ­ees’ wel­fare and agreed to meet with them reg­u­lar­ly, says Shearon. The depart­ment has also appoint­ed Shailor, who pre­vi­ous­ly worked as the Direc­tor of the Inter­na­tion­al Depart­ment at the AFL-CIO, as its point per­son to address work­ers’ con­cerns, say both Lang­ford and Shearon. 

More impor­tant­ly, Shearon and Lang­ford say that Wade also apol­o­gized for the Pol­son let­ter, and that Wade called the let­ter inap­pro­pri­ate.”

The State Depart­ment did not return Work­ing In These Times’ request for com­ment on whether an apol­o­gy was giv­en in the closed-door meeting. 

Though the State Depart­ment plans to address work­ers’ expressed con­cerns, it also remains mum about whether work­ers who are for­eign nation­als will actu­al­ly be allowed to union­ize. It also has not yet agreed to meet with IFPTE-ITSA in any for­mal, reg­u­lar capac­i­ty with set agen­das to dis­cuss spe­cif­ic problems.

Still, how­ev­er, Shearon is opti­mistic. He says that the State Depart­ment can allow col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing sim­ply by issu­ing a new rule. I don’t think they knew that piece of pol­i­cy was sit­ting there, it’s been sit­ting there for years,” says Shearon. It’s an admin­is­tra­tive thing that they can do internally.” 

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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