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Was it a conspiracy or simply clutter that led to the purging of union notices from bulletin boards at the Klucynski Federal Building?

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Charles Paidock was sitting at his desk in the library of the Kluczynski Federal Building, minding his own business, when he saw the great bulletin-board purge begin. "It happened on June 3, 2002, to be exact--a day that will infamously rank in the annals of Kluczynski Building history," he says. "I'm having fun, but I don't mean to make light of this. They purged our bulletin boards of all union notices, rules, and regulations. Zap. They just took them down. I still cannot fathom why they did what they did. You're looking for an underlying why in this universe, and we were not furnished with one."

Paidock, who lives in Bridgeport, is by nature a genial man, with a dry sense of humor, an encyclopedic collection of facts in his head, and a precise, slow way of speaking. By day he's a librarian for the General Services Administration. "Well, officially I'm known as a technical-information specialist," he says. "In actuality I'm the custodian of the printed page. I collect government documents in our internal agency library--architectural drawings, laws, rules, regulations, that sort of thing."

On weekends he helps run the College of Complexes, an eclectic bunch of freethinkers who gather once a week at the Lincoln Restaurant to listen to speeches and then discuss and debate the issues presented. "I'm the program coordinator--the fellow who schedules the speakers," he says. "I get to meet some really nice people, whose hearts are in the right place even if some of their ideas seem to come from the moon."

He's also an official with the National Federation of Federal Employees, the union that represents most of the workers in the Kluczynski Building, which is at 230 S. Dearborn. "My title there is Big Kahuna. No, just kidding. Right now I'm, let's see, the designated representative. But if you want to call me a steward, that's OK."

On June 3 Paidock was at work in the library when he noticed the building manager pulling documents from the bulletin board. "He was personally removing things, which seemed a little unusual," he says. "He's got a slew of people in his unit, but he was taking the time to remove these things himself. So I suppose it must have been very important to him. I inquired, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'I'm only following orders.' He was like a robot. No matter what I asked, he said he was only following orders. I said, 'What orders are you following?' He said, 'I'm only following orders.' I said, 'Whose orders?' He said, 'I'm only following orders.' I said, 'Did you notify us that you would do this?' He said, 'I'm only following orders.' I said, 'There's language in the union contract covering these bulletin boards.' He said, 'I'm only following orders.'

"After that I kind of had fun with him, though I don't think this is a frivolous matter. I asked him other questions just to see if his answers might vary. But they didn't. He just kept saying, 'I'm only following orders.'"

Because the GSA is a federal bureaucracy, its bulletin boards are governed by policy, in this case policy covered by the union contract. Essentially, Paidock says, the bulletin boards are supposed to be repositories for union information. "You find things like a statement on prohibited personnel practices--in other words, things they can't do to us. I did have a picture of Abe Lincoln on there. I put it on a union brochure. But that can't be bad if it's Honest Abe."

He admits that parts of the bulletin boards have also been given over to nonunion matters. "I don't think the bulletin boards were that cluttered, though we had everything from notices for Susie's retirement party to some little group's fund-raiser," he says. "I also posted some ACLU broadsheet briefing papers, such as your rights at work and another one about your rights of free expression. There are even notices for a religious meeting. There's nothing of a sensitive nature on this bulletin board, I can assure you of that. This has nothing to do with national security. We're all good citizens."

As near as Paidock can tell, the manager and his cohorts went through the bulletin boards on about ten floors of GSA offices in the Kluczynski Building. "It's curious what they took and what they left," he says. "They took all the union-related material-- including the one with the picture of Honest Abe--as well as the ACLU broadsheets. They left a few items, like the fire-exit signs and the government posters asking us to buy savings bonds. Interestingly, they did keep the notices for religious meetings. They went after us [the union] and left everyone else. I guess we're godless."

The purge was followed by an exchange of memos. "We've now begun the great memo war that goes back and forth into eternity," says Paidock. "I wrote one in which we requested a clarification. They wrote back an 11-page memo of unfathomable bureaucratic jargon. In essence it says, 'Do what I tell you.'"

Paidock says he's been digging through the contract investigating the rules that govern bulletin boards. "It's like anything else--once you start snooping around, there's no end to the interesting information you might find," he says. "I even found information in the contract that says we're entitled to glass-enclosed, locked bulletin boards. I thought, 'All right, where are our glass-enclosed, locked bulletin boards?' I haven't found any yet."

According to Paidock, the bulletin-board purgers weren't following proper GSA procedures, even if they were only following orders. "You do not issue unilateral instructions to organized labor, even in a bureaucracy like this," he says. "You submit proposals to the union. You notify us, and we meet and discuss it. That's why you hear the term 'bargaining in good faith.' If the management says, 'From here on out, we want all employees to wear hats,' we come in and say, 'No, we don't think we should have to wear red hats. Or if we do, maybe they should be orange, not red.' In other words, you do things in a straightforward fashion, recognizing that employees have rights and management has rights. And those rights are represented in our contract. This is the foundation of our universe."

Federal officials won't say why they did what they did. The bureaucrats who apparently made--or at least understood--the decision to purge the bulletin boards of union-related material didn't return calls for comment. The public information officer who did call back, David Wilkinson, said he didn't know all the facts of the case, much less the rules and regulations governing bulletin boards. "I'm familiar with the situation, but I can't really respond to questions about the matter," he said. "My general understanding is that the union contract provides a separate bulletin board for union matters, and that wasn't the case here. The union information was posted here and there and everywhere. But really I don't know."

Speaking for himself and not in any way trying to represent the federal government, Wilkinson said that occasionally cleaning up the bulletin boards isn't a bad idea, at least from an aesthetic point of view. "You've got to understand that we're on floors 39, 38, 36, 35, 34, 33--those are the floors I can think of right off the bat that General Services Administration is on in Kluczynski," he said. "There are bulletin boards on all of those floors. Some are well maintained and others are not. And there are sometimes bulletins pinned over other bulletins until it resembles a house that hasn't been totally reshingled in 80 years. At times there has been a visible clutter."

Paidock says he might file a union grievance to at least get a ruling, adding, "I think management should realize that if you want to be mean, it's going to come back to haunt you." He's already notified GSA management that the union wants to meet to discuss the matter. "I haven't heard from them," he says. "They have five days to get back. They were formally notified on June 17."

Paidock says he'll press the issue until he has a resolution that advances the cause of free speech for federal employees. "I suppose this isn't the biggest issue to come down the pike, but it is crucial," he says. "Even if they found something offensive on the board they shouldn't take it down. The way to counter bad speech is to allow more speech. Don't restrict it. It's just like what we do at the College of Complexes. We agree to disagree. If we don't agree with your point of view we certainly wouldn't preclude you from speaking. Speak up and let the marketplace of ideas rule. Our First Amendment is very important--that's why it's the first one."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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