Government union leaders punished for political connections. Controversy builds over limits on political activity by federal workers

Presidents of three major government unions have been suspended from their federal jobs for participating in ``partisan politics'' during the US presidential campaign in 1984. This ruling, which was handed down Tuesday, adds fuel to the ongoing controversy over limits on political activity by government employees.

Heads of the unions which represent 1.3 million federal employees have been charged with supporting Walter Mondale's presidential campaign in violation of the Hatch Act of 1939, which bars government workers from campaigning, raising money, distributing literature, and running for office.

Edward J. Reidy, chief administrative law judge of the Merit Systems Protection Board, ruled that the three labor leaders went beyond ``mere independent expressions of political opinions on candidates'' and made ``undisguised pleas for help to support challenger Walter Mondale in an attempt to unseat Ronald Reagan.''

Since the unionists' actions were not ``flagrant or willful,'' he said, the ultimate penalty of loss of their government jobs was not imposed. Even so, the 60-day suspensions were the first in the 46 years of the Hatch Act, which was passed in the formative days of federal government unionism to keep unions out of national politics.

Judge Reidy's ruling was directed at Moe Biller, president of the American Postal Workers Union; Vincent Sombrotto, head of the National Association of Letter Carriers, and Kenneth Blaylock, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. All three are on unpaid leave from federal jobs while serving as union officials.

Each has denied that their campaign activities last year violated the Hatch Act. In briefs filed with Judge Reidy, they argued that, since they were on extended leaves of absence, they were not federal employees as defined by the Hatch Act. The union leaders believe the judge's ruling against them jeopardizes their constitutional right of free speech. The men plan to appeal the decision, first to the full Merit System Protection Board and, if necessary, in federal court.

In an earlier test of the Hatch Act in 1948, the United States Supreme Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the law but clarified provisions for using labor union money for political purposes.

Organized labor, particularly the AFL-CIO, is deeply involved in national politics and federal unions comprise a strong 10 percent of AFL-CIO membership. When the three government union presidents were charged with improper political activities, the AFL-CIO came out strongly in their defense.

Several AFL-CIO executive council sessions and recent conventions have adopted resolutions charging that limitations on political activities by federal government workers are ``discriminatory'' in their severity. The issue is expected to come up again next week when the federation opens it biennial convention in California.

Since passage of the Hatch Act, many states have adopted ``little Hatch Act'' measures that restrict the political activities of unions of civil-service employees during state elections.

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