A union that represents workers at the Goddard Space Flight Center is criticizing Rep. Donna F. Edwards' handling of a racial complaint they said they raised years ago with her congressional office but received little response.
The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents about 8,000 NASA workers, would on the surface appear to be an easy get for Edwards in her campaign for Maryland's open Senate seat. She represents many Goddard workers in Prince George's County, is a former NASA contractor and is a member of the House Committee on Science Space and Technology.
But the group announced late last week it is backing Edwards' opponent for the Democratic nomination -- Rep. Chris Van Hollen -- and its officials took the unusual step of offering a reason more tangible than the talking-point language that generally accompanies such announcements.
The union has for years raised concern that African American workers in the agency are getting consistently lower grades on performance evaluations than their white colleagues. Matt Biggs, the union's legislative director, said the group took that concern to several members of Congress, including Edwards.
"We went to Donna Edwards and we got not even an attempt to try to fix this situation, and it was quite disappointing," Biggs said in an interview. "When we went to her for help, we we're left scratching our heads wondering 'hmm.'"
Both Edwards and Van Hollen have received several labor endorsements in the race for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's seat, and they tend to involve a few plaudits of the candidate and no mention of the opponent. However, the space workers group is the second to directly note why they are opposing Edwards.
Earlier this year, seven SEIU locals backed Van Hollen over Edwards, despite a long relationship with the congresswoman. One of them, 1199 SEIU, said it felt betrayed by the Prince George's County lawmaker's support for a new, non-unionized hospital near White Oak in Montgomery County, even as the nearby Laurel Regional Hospital is being closed.
An Edwards aide noted that equal pay has been a centerpiece of Edwards' campaign for months. The Democrat also won the backing of a similar union that represents NASA contractors, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, several months ago.
Edwards has frequently touted the historic nature of her candidacy: She would be the first African American to represent Maryland in the Senate, and only the second black woman elected to the chamber in its history.
"As an African American woman, Donna knows firsthand the struggles for recognition and reward in the workplace and getting paid less than a man for doing the same job and that is why she has championed equal pay for equal work in Congress and is a leader in the fight for equality for all," campaign spokesman Benjamin Gerdes said.