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.