ARLINGTON, VA — In a historic move, the Department of the Army has recognized the right of service members to unionize.
“Historically, collective bargaining has improved American working conditions and made us the envy of the world economically. We’re pleased to announce that our soldiers can now have that right. In defending democracy, our service members should reserve the right to practice it,” declared Secretary of the Army John McHugh.
McHugh went on to say that the founding of a union had been under way for sometime and required lengthy negotiations with top civilian and military leaders, before an acceptable framework emerged. The first union, the Junior Enlisted Service Members (JESM), almost immediately threatened a strike.
PFC Harry Milton of the 323rd Military Intelligence Battalion is the founder of JESM. The 19 year-old soldier invited Duffel Blog into his new office in the reserve center, just outside Ft. Meade, MD, where JESM is headquartered.
Milton is unassuming, with bright red hair and a ginger complexion. To look at him, one would not believe that this is the face that could possibly bring the Army to its knees much more effectively than any budget sequester. Milton stressed the inequities in the Army — the result of what he calls a “slavish devotion to merit” — are what drove him to lead the move for more collective bargaining.
“We decided to found this union in response to the increasing problem of merit-based promotions. Are you really telling me you might promote some 21 year-old kid to Staff Sergeant, just because he’s a natural leader and a quick study? Hell no, you’ve got guys who’ve been slaving away at their job for almost two decades who deserve that rank more.”
JESM demands its members get the rights to refuse to train or deploy, regardless of duty position, to receive an additional stipend for members’ spouses, and guaranteed E-4 rank until retirement.
The Army’s insists on limiting JESM’s membership to new soldiers, effective October 1, 2012.
“Look, I’ve been in the Army ten years," one Specialist fumed. “I may still be a Specialist, true, but I came in well before these guys. Don’t I deserve respect?”
Some in Washington remain skeptical. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno expressed his reservations to Duffel Blog, shortly after civilian leaders made the announcement.
“I don’t see how we maintain readiness in this situation. I’m sure it sounds good to civilian ears, but it’s simply unrealistic to expect we’ll have to sit down with the union to re-negotiate contracts to which they have already agreed to as individuals,” Odierno said.
Further complicating matters is a massive competition by both public and private sector unions to represent service members. John Gage of the American Federation of Government Employees was blunt. “As much as I appreciate what PFC Milton wants to accomplish, a merger [with AFGE] would better accommodate him. We’re at a time when public workers face massive budget cuts. We need to present a united front.”
Private unions such as Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chimed in as well. “We represent 2.1 million service sector workers in North America. The Army is itself a jobs program, is it not? Who is more deserving of social justice than these unsung heroes of the junior enlisted?,” asked SEIU president Mary Kay Henry.
Larry Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO) offered that the military would be better represented by his union, simply stating “no one has more effectively campaigned against meritocracy than we have.”
Junior officers don’t want to be left out, and have formed an organizing committee, led by 1LT Mary Harris Jones. It has already convened and begun collecting cards.
PFC Milton is resolute. “There’s a lot of sour grapes over this. But we stand firm for our right to sit down,” he said. PFC Milton seemed stressed during the interview and fumbled with a mock up of a deployment “stress card.” “It’s something we’re looking at demanding after basic.”
At the end of the interview, he sagged in his chair, starring over his office. “I think I may have been cheated,” he reflected, looking at the neatly stacked signs. “They never told me unionizing was going to be such hard work!”
Duffel Blog journalists Dirty, G-Had and Jay-B contributed to this report.