As she sauntered out of her usually quiet Social Security Administration office at quitting time Wednesday, Eileen Freter walked smack into a clump of jostling, obscenity-shouting union activists -- and history.
She and her 12,000 fellow SSA workers at the Woodlawn complex are a focus of one of the biggest raids in American history, and an important experiment in union democracy.
For Ms. Freter and many like her, a fight between two unions over the right to represent federal employees is little more than a rear-guard action in a doomed cause. She, like many others, appears to have lost faith in unions after more than a decade of broken strikes, lost court battles, layoffs and corruption charges.
"It's liar vs. liar," Ms. Freter said of the battle for representation of 55,000 SSA employees nationwide.
But as the number of American workers represented by unions dwindles to new lows, many labor experts say, the SSA dispute could help determine the future of the beleaguered union movement -- for good or ill.
The reason? The dispute will test a decades-old debate over whether competition weakens or strengthens the labor movement -- and it will test the question in labor's last stronghold.
As the nation's traditionally unionized industrial base has eroded, the number of union members in the private sector has dropped by more than 2 million in the last decade, to 10 million. Meanwhile, the number of government-sector union members has risen by nearly 1 million, to 6.6 million.
Many union activists and historians warn that infighting like that brewing at the SSA will weaken the already-ailing cause of organized labor.
"This thing is bad for the employees and bad for the agency," warnsCharles Bernhardt, a labor relations specialist at the National Federation of Federal Employees, a union that isn't involved in the dispute. "Too much energy is being diverted from representing employees."
But some, like Arthur Fox, a labor lawyer in Washington, say the battle is "wonderful" for unions. Competition among unions could strengthen and revitalize the movement, Mr. Fox believes.
The battle began three years ago, when Robert Tobias, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), announced he would lead his union in a charge to take over
representation of SSA employees.
The NTEU, which bills itself as the nation's fastest-growing union, represents 150,000 workers at agencies such as the IRS, Customs Service and Treasury Department. Federal agencies are "open shops;" although the union bargains for all employees, each worker can choose whether or not to pay dues. Only about 65,000 of those represented by the NTEU pay dues.
The NTEU is challenging the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the nation's largest federal union. It represents 700,000 workers, of whom about 200,000 pay dues.
From the first, the AFGE tried to stop the NTEU, claiming that even allowing the challenger to petition for a vote would waste both unions' resources. The AFGE persuaded federal labor officials to ban the competitor's staffers from the SSA buildings and sidewalks around the Woodlawn complex.
But last month, a federal court ruled that the NTEU had the right to petition on the sidewalks outside the Baltimore SSA headquarters.
And last week, the NTEU organizers returned to the sidewalks of Woodlawn, and the union battle began in earnest.
The NTEU has about four months to get 15,000 SSA employees' signatures on petitions authorizing a vote on the two unions. If it can collect those signatures by Nov. 25, the SSA employees will vote on which union they want to represent them.
The NTEU's action follows a long and checkered history of union raids. Union raiding used to be much more common. And although the scene in Woodlawn was a little rowdy, it was nothing compared with previous raids, said Ronald Donovan, a labor historian at the University of Michigan.
Unions would try to take over the membership of other unions for a variety of reasons: ideological differences, strategic disagreements and, sometimes, he said, pure greed.
There were raids between conservative unions and those that were allegedly Communist-influenced, for example. The "craft" unions (such as the plumbers, electricians and machinists) allied with the old American Federation of Labor were often raided by the "industrial" unions (such as the autoworkers and steelworkers) allied with the old Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Much of the raiding ended when the AFL merged with the CIO in 1955. The new federation made all its member unions promise not to fight each other, said Hugh Cleland, a labor historian at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Today, the only raids involve independent unions, like the NTEU. The AFGE is part of the AFL-CIO.
The Social Security dispute appears, in many ways, to be similar to past union raids.
There are ideological differences: The AFGE allows its locals to exercise autonomy over their own affairs, while the NTEU believes in tight centralized control of bargaining units. The NTEU promises to fight in Congress for added hiring. The AFGE, the nation's biggest federal union, says it lobbies too, but it emphasizes service to its members.
There are strategic differences, too. Neither union relies on strikes, because federal employees are effectively banned from striking. But the AFGE tends to rely on negotiating its differences with employers, while the NTEU has become known for its legalistic tactics and taking disputes to the courts.
And there is the money. Though the AFGE is the nation's largest federal employee union, it has been having financial difficulties in recent years, overspending its income.
The loss of 55,000 workers, of whom about 20,000 pay a total of $4 million a year in dues, would be a severe blow to the troubled union, says Mr. Bernhardt of the NFFE.
But it isn't just money. Winning the SSA contract would increase the membership at the NTEU by one-third. It would give the NTEU yet another organizing victory and increase the union's political clout.
There are personal feelings as well. John Gage, president of the Baltimore AFGE local, charges that the NTEU drive is nothing but a personal power play by the NTEU president, Mr. Tobias.
But NTEU organizers say the AFGE has been fighting because if their challenge succeeds, hundreds of AFGE officials, including Mr. Gage, will lose their union jobs.
Little of this complexity was evident outside SSA offices last week.
As supporters of the two unions called each other "scab" and worse, Ms. Freter tried to ask members of each side about their fliers. Finally, as the shouting degenerated into shoving, she gave up. "I'd rather see a formal setting, where the unions debated on another," she said.
The AFGE said later that it would try to arrange a debate. But those familiar with raids of the past said that the stakes are so high -- beliefs, money, jobs -- that that the hurly-burly will likely continue.
"It goes with the territory," said Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago-based labor lawyer and author of a recent book on the labor movement.
"If you have a democracy, you get a certain amount of vulgarity," he said. "Look at the presidential campaigns."