During the Korean War, the United Steelworkers of America announced they planned to go on strike. Panic ripped through the Truman administration as it worried a strike would disrupt supplies of steel for weapons and munitions. The administration tried to find a compromise between steel companies and the union. The effort failed, and the strike’s start date inched closer.
President Truman had a decision to make. Either he could invoke lawful emergency powers under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and order the union to return to work, or he could try to take the unauthorized step of taking over the steel mills. He chose the latter to please his political constituency, made up of pro-labor Democrats. The U.S. Supreme Court stopped President Truman from unlawfully seizing control of the facilities, and the strike commenced, lasting for six weeks.
The events would become the factual basis of one of this country’s most consequential constitutional law cases, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, where the Supreme Court laid out the limits of presidential power. However, the case also demonstrated the potential for labor pandering to endanger defense priorities, even though applying the NLRA was a sensible alternative.
Labor unrest in the defense industry can still be a dire national security problem today.
For instance, Bath Iron Works suffered a strike by a unionized workforce that lasted over two months in the summer of 2020. The shipyard, one of two yards that produces the Arleigh Burke destroyer, is also facing pressure from the U.S. Navy’s effort to restructure its fleet. This two-tiered challenge was almost too much for Bath. It faced, but overcame, the threat of having to close, which would have reduced America’s dwindling number of shipyards even further.
In another case this past decade, unionized machinists went on strike against F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin. To avoid delays on production, Lockheed had to scramble to find replacement workers to ensure that the backbone of the U.S. air fleet made it to the military. Labor activism can sometimes throw a wrench into America’s defense industry priorities.
Union membership at private companies, however, has been declining for decades. It is employees who decide whether or not to form a union. Workers at Amazon, for example, have repeatedly rejected calls for unionization. Also, blue-collar workers – union and non-union – are often strongly patriotic. Most take pride in work that strengthens American security. But when union bosses join forces with left-wing politicians to push an agenda, industrial unrest can quickly result.
Some in Congress would make these problems worse, ignoring significant national security concerns while punishing companies for their workers’ choices.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for example, requested that President Biden cancel critical national security and aerospace contracts with Amazon and its sister companies. Amazon is working on a cloud contract for the National Security Agency (NSA), aiding this country’s efforts to monitor communications of terrorists and hostile state actors.
Senator Sanders is putting labor activism ahead of national security. Because Amazon’s employees decided against unionization, Sanders argues, the company must have illegally prevented the effort. Therefore, Sanders demands they be cut from government contracts.
Senator Sanders is wrong to endanger a national security program so that he can promote his far-left labor agenda. The NSA awarded the contract to improve its data processing and analytics, and a contract protest has already delayed that work. Further delay could jeopardize this country’s intelligence work and leave us unnecessarily vulnerable. U.S. rivals are working hard to stay ahead of this country in cyberspace.
Furthermore, employee revolts can also threaten national security. In 2018, thousands of Google employees demanded the company terminate its work with the U.S. Department of Defense on Project Maven. The project “automatically detect[s] potential targets” in images captured by drones, helping American officials identify terrorists and other national security threats. Employees whined that the company was providing defense capabilities to the U.S. government. “Building this technology to assist the US government in military surveillance — and potentially lethal outcomes — is not acceptable,” they wrote.
Google workers, even though the company’s employees were generally not unionized, forced executives’ hands. Google gave in and aborted its work, leaving the defense department without a contractor.
Google had trouble dealing with a non-union workforce. While uncomfortable, the only thing stopping management from continuing the project was a lack of will. Imagine what problems the defense department could face if a contractor’s unionized workforce started disrupting national security projects. Strikes and work stoppages would be indulged, especially if a union-pandering president found it politically untenable to declare an emergency under his NLRA authority.
Luckily for American security, companies like Amazon and Microsoft picked up the slack on Project Maven. Both worked with the defense department to improve drone image identification analysis after Google renounced its role.
Senator Sanders’ call for presidential action against Amazon is dangerous and reckless particularly given recent and historical events. He is threatening an important national security contract, and national security provider, to promote special interest, left-wing causes. The Biden administration should reject his request, and put American security first.
Find Archived Articles: