Activists from two competing unions handed out leaflets, shouted slogans, called each other names and occasionally shoved each other in front of the Social Security Administration headquarters yesterday, as the nation's biggest union-vs.-union battle moved into high gear.
Declaring their differing allegiances with white T-shirts or red caps, dozens of members of the two federal-employee unions clustered around one of the buildings in the Woodlawn complex at yesterday's 3 p.m. shift change.
Emotions ran high because the stakes are so high, both sides said as they vied for the backing of the 12,000 workers at the SSA complex.
The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which bills itself as the fastest-growing union in the country, wants to take over representation of all 55,000 SSA employees nationwide.
NTEU President Robert Tobias said yesterday that his union can help the SSA workers by getting the federal funding and added hiring they need to ease their workload. He said the NTEU has won similar battles for workers at the Internal Revenue Service, whom it also represents.
But the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which has represented all SSA employees since 1979, says the competing union is simply interested in expanding its power and is hurting the labor movement by causing union dissension.
John Gage, president of the Baltimore AFGE local, said the NTEU was wasting more than $2 million of its members' money on the "raid" at SSA.
He said his union would fight back but that he resented having to spend time and money on the representation battle. "We want to spend our money representing our members," Mr. Gage said.
Mr. Tobias announced in 1989 that the NTEU would try to get 30 percent of SSA employees to sign a petition asking for a vote on a choice of unions, but the drive has been hung up in the courts. He said the union would spend $1.4 million on what he said was the largest organizing battle in the country.
NTEU staff members weren't allowed inside the SSA building. Last year, they were also banned by SSA security officials from working the sidewalks outside the Baltimore County offices.
Last month, however, a federal judge ruled that the sidewalk ban violated the union's and the workers' First Amendment rights, and allowed the petitioners to return to the sidewalks.
NTEU supporters returned to Woodlawn yesterday in pursuit of the 15,000 signatures needed to gain a representation election. As AFGE members asked departing workers to "recycle NTEU garbage" by throwing the competing union's leaflets into big brown bags, NTEU supporters asked workers to at least support a vote.
Frank Fahey, an AFGE member who has worked at SSA for 25 years, was asking his fellow workers to sign the petition because "I'd like to be given a choice."
He said he doesn't have any major complaints against AFGE but that he doesn't like the AFGE's opposition to a vote.
When he started putting up NTEU posters on the office's union bulletin boards last year, they were torn down within 10 or 15 minutes, he said.
Linda Barrett, one of the AFGE supporters who chanted that the NTEU was a "scab union," said she wasn't impressed by the way the NTEU represented her when she worked for the IRS.
Although the IRS' staff has increased and SSA's has decreased, Ms. Barrett said she didn't think it was right for the NTEU to take credit for the difference.
The workers who hadn't chosen sides seemed bewildered by -- or skeptical of -- yesterday's fuss.