Tex Harris: Representing at Home the Officers who Serve Abroad
A lack of due process, serious disorganization, and inadequate representation. This was the state of affairs of Foreign Service labor management in the late 1960s, when officers who served abroad could not rely upon a personnel system that was sorely outdated and lacked the means to sufficiently take care of its people. These circumstances would culminate in the tragic suicide of Charles Thomas in 1971 after being wrongfully selected out of the Foreign Service.
FSO Tex Harris, who had already been in the midst of resolving due process issues within the State Department, then became personally convicted by Thomas’ death and set out to accomplish what many colleagues would remember him for: establishing a grievance system that epitomized his unwavering morality and sincere care for all of his fellow FSOs.
Tex Harris first joined the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) in 1968 as a junior officer, citing his initial aims to combat what were then simply due process issues. He joined the board as part of the “Young Turk” movement within the Foreign Service that sought to revolutionize the personnel system’s standards, ensuring that the work conditions and voices of all FSOs would be heard loud and clear. As a result, Tex Harris and the rest of the board effectively unionized AFSA with the intent of creating a more suitable personnel system based on merit and a legislative enactment of a grievance system long overdue.
This “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history conveys how Tex Harris strived to embody the values of justice he held so dear and the passion with which he would inspire both peers and mentors to take action wherever he went. His work here would serve as a foundation for a long career that started with scrutiny faced alone, in places like the bureaucracy and the Dirty War in Argentina, and ended with commemorations as president of AFSA surrounded by admirers of a man who never seemed to stop fighting the good fight.
F. Allen “Tex” Harris’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on December 10, 1999.
Read Tex Harris’ full oral history HERE.
Read about how Tex Harris risked his career to sever U.S. ties with a corrupt subsidiary of the Argentine navy HERE.
Read more about Charles Thomas’ case HERE.
Read a tribute to the life of Tex Harris HERE.
Drafted by Andrew Lim
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“If you knew one of the under secretaries or someone like that; you might appeal up through this old-boy system, but that really was it. It was a very parochial, old-fashioned personnel system. Yes, I thought that was just wrong.”
Egalitarian Change in the Foreign Service:
Q: How would you describe the attitude of the Foreign Service towards its members? We’re talking about ’68/’70.
HARRIS: It was a transition. I think this was a period of a transition from a more elitist to a more egalitarian Foreign Service. A lot of the folks who had come into the Foreign Service in earlier days came there from rather successful families. They were bicoastal. They were much more urbane. The Foreign Service Act and some of its reforms and the change in recruitment meant that they were bringing in people from all over the United States much more. I’m sure the record is steeped with this kind of stuff. But there was a real change in terms of the demographics of recruitment and the demographics of people coming into the Foreign Service. But the senior guys then went up and most of them all got embassies. If you were a political officer and you were well connected, you moved forward and you got an embassy. Some of these guys that we saw were really not capable. They really did not have the right stuff, and it was a disappointment. They had the right connections and spoke beautifully and so forth, but they didn’t have work discipline, they didn’t have the mental capabilities of really doing outstanding work, and that was disappointing. But I think we saw that we were going to replace these guys and that they were moving out. I remember one of my epiphanies: There was a fellow who was a director of personnel by the name of Howard Mace, and if anybody had a problem, they would go and see Howard Mace.
Now Howard Mace was certainly not a blue blood, but he was the fixer, he was the director of personnel, the number-two person to the director general, and he was the old-time civil servant who fixed all the problems. So people would go to see him in their Brooks Brothers suit with their penny loafers, and Howard would somehow make it right. Or if someone had broken the code and was somehow outside the pale, then it couldn’t be fixed and their career was finished. You might appeal to the director general. If you knew one of the under secretaries or someone like that; you might appeal up through this old-boy system, but that really was it. It was a very parochial, old-fashioned personnel system. Yes, I thought that was just wrong. It was a generational change. That was the major thing. It was a real generational change in terms of attitudes in the Foreign Service, and AFSA became one of the places where those change agents clustered. So I was in the forefront of that, and it just happened—again it was just luck—that my activity in JFSOC somehow caught the eye of Charlie Bray, and when somebody resigned from the AFSA board, some senior officer, they decided it would be a good thing to have a junior officer aboard, and how about this tall kid, Harris—tall, skinny kid Harris, if I can add—and consequently I was recruited and that was it.
“It was to push for it, making sure that its people were well cared for overseas.”
AFSA Representing FSO Interests: It [AFSA in the 1960s–1970s] was a period of resurgence. Lannon Walker and Charlie Bray had taken over the association, and I don’t really have much of a fix on what it was before. They developed what was called the Young Turk Board, which was dedicated to expanding the role of the Foreign Service Association—The Young Turk Board headed by Lannon Walker and Charlie Bray in this period began to expand the role of the association in order to make connections between the Foreign Service and what was then the beginning of globalization, of multinational firms, and trying to make connections to gain support for the Foreign Service’s agenda from American business, banking, non-governmental organizations, and began to hold a number of conferences and an outreach program. This was really a change from a Foreign Service association that looked inward to a Foreign Service association that began to look outward. On the board was one of my mentors, Hank Cohen, and Hank began to push, along with a few others, on a number of key issues dealing with employee benefits and feeling that these had been neglected. Hank was a labor officer and felt that this was a role that AFSA had that it should really fulfill. It was to push for it, making sure that its people were well cared for overseas. These were fairly new currents in the association, and it created a lot of energy in the building, got the attention of the secretary and others . . . .
Q: Did you feel that you were going for, let’s say, benefits and all—There used to be the attitude that gentlemen don’t ask for these things and this is a professional organization and you’re trying to turn it into more of a union. Was there any opposition in that particular regard, or had that passed by?
HARRIS: No, no, that was very strong, but that really did not come to the fore at that time. That was later, when under the Harrop board, which I was the vice president of—Bill Harrop, Ambassador Bill Harrop, although he wasn’t ambassador then—President Kennedy made a deal with the American labor movement that he would introduce a labor management system into the federal government . . . .
And he issued an executive order that set up a system to allow federal employees to organize and to bargain collectively with federal managers on the terms of employment. This, of course, applied to the Department of State and AID (Agency for International Development) and USIA and the other agencies. AFSA was then confronted with the beginning of American Federation of Government Employees chapters in these organizations, and their goal was to trigger elections and to run the labor management relations for those agencies. Well, I led a movement of the AFSA—this is in the Harrop board—that this really did not make sense . . . .
That decision for AFSA to essentially organize itself as a union, in order to compete under the executive order to represent the Foreign Service folks, created an enormous rift in the Foreign Service. There were many people, older officers, who were very antagonistic toward labor. They felt that they were professionals and under no circumstances had joined an association with the idea that that association would become a union. So it became very bitter. AFSA was hit with a number of resignations and a lot of bitterness, a lot of hard feelings. Now, what we projected was that we were going to have a dual system in which AFSA would be both a professional organization and a labor union, because under the rules of a union representation, people who were managers, which constituted a lot of our leadership, could not represent AFSA in bargaining with management because they were also management, they were managers. The definition of a manager in the federal service was essentially anyone who approved anyone else’s leave, so if you were a deputy office director and you had two or three junior officers and a few secretaries and others coming to you to get their annual leave approved, you were [a manager] by definition of the Department. We disagreed with that, but the Department considered you to be a manager and consequently unfit, ineligible, to be in the collective bargaining unit as being represented by the unit and also could not sit across the table from management. So we lost a lot of our people that we needed to do this . . . .
But we did the drafting of the framework for AFSA to reconstitute itself and for the new type of labor-management relationships, which had to be different from those of the civil service, because you had this system, which had a commission that had all these bureaucratic structures in place, which had been developed during the Kennedy administration ready to impose a system onto the Foreign Service that didn’t fit. This really meant that we had to have a separate executive order for the Foreign Service to take account of the rank in person, our nature of worldwide availability, the fact that we were transferred every three or four years around the world, and the other things that made service in the diplomatic service different from service in the civil service. So we put this together and this was done at that time. We put that forward to management . . . .
Now that was, we thought, the hard part, but we were wrong. The hard part was that we had to reorganize the system, which was set up for the civil service, into a bargaining system that made sense for the Foreign Service.
“We had lots of issues in terms of due process, and these all came to the fore in the very tragic suicide of Charles Thomas.”
Need for Strong Representatives: But there were lots of people in the Foreign Service who felt that what AFSA really needed, or what they needed, was someone to stand up on the bread-and-butter issues and also on the due process issues, because the Department of State, AID, and USIA personnel systems were very arbitrary and, in fact, capricious. There were major concerns and misgivings and hard feelings among a lot of members in the Foreign Service that something needed to be done, and they needed strong representatives. There was also always the feeling that AFSA leadership was made up of folks who would not stand up as tall perhaps as they needed to be because they did not want to screw up their chances of onward assignments and did not want to really put their finger into the eye of the secretary of state or the under secretary of state for management. So that was also a concern.
About eight years later, as a matter of fact, USIA—maybe it was twelve years later—contested the election, with AFGE [American Federation of Government Employees] winning the representation of the Foreign Service people in USIA, and I think that was really more a sense that USIA officers were unhappy with AFSA because they felt it was overwhelmingly focused on State issues as opposed to USIA. They felt they could get a better deal and more concern and interest on their specific problems in their separate agency by having an AFGE union. But we developed a system of labor-management relations that were different from the civil service because they didn’t have a contract. In the civil service they bargain like the American labor movement and they have a contract, so every two or three years they sit down and they bargain an agreement, and that contract lasts for two years. Then they bargain a new one, and it takes them nine months or a year to bargain a new one, and then they have a new contract that goes for two years and then runs on for another year while they’re negotiating the new one. We didn’t think that made sense, because there are so many things in the Foreign Service that come up periodically, precepts each year, new rules on—
Q: Precepts for?
HARRIS: Precepts for promotion, and new rules in terms of adjusting travel regulations. All these things were things that we had a right to bargain on. Now we couldn’t bargain on some key things. We couldn’t bargain on who was promoted, and one of the first major fights that we had was with AID, which mandated that the AID senior selection board, when choosing their highest-ranking officers, would not rank order people by merit but would essentially find the top ten and then give that list to the administrator of AID, who would in fact then choose from the list those people that he wanted to promote. This was absolutely outrageous, so we had major fights, and we went to the Hill. Bill Harrop led the fight on that one, which was absolutely a really terrible precedent had it stood, so we stood up for that. That was one of the very tough, early issues that we had. We had lots of issues in terms of due process, and these all came to the fore in the very tragic suicide of Charles Thomas. My God, when I think of the impact that his death had in the [Foreign] Service.
“I, as a lawyer and as someone who had worked in the civil rights movement and was committed, was really dedicated on these issues of due process.”
Impact of the Thomas Case on Due Process: Charles Thomas was a very capable, bright political officer who served in the European Bureau, and he was a person who had extremely high expectations for himself in terms of his advancement, but he didn’t quite make it. He had many languages, a lot of skills, a lot of pizzazz, and was a very effective officer working in German affairs and other central European issues there, which is very tough and a very competitive world. Under the system of up or out, he did not get promoted. In those days, I guess, it was beyond Class 3 in time and was identified for selection out, and a year or several years later he took his life, in large part stemming from his enormous disappointment in terms of not being advanced. He had significant difficulties in terms of getting his hearing . . . .
There were a number of significant procedural due process irregularities in the handling of the Thomas case, but for these things he should have had other considerations, should have had other reviews. These were issues that came to the fore. The AFL-CIO and AFGE and a number of people very critical of the Department of State, of the Foreign Service, used this case as a way of pointing out the real difficulties that were in due process in the personnel system in the Foreign Service, and it became a very effective block in the service pointing up these issues. I, as a lawyer and as someone who had worked in the civil rights movement and was committed, was really dedicated on these issues of due process. That was part of it.
I led a group with Marion Nash, who was then a civil servant, the law librarian, two or three other lawyers—I was then at the Legal Adviser’s office in the State Department—in the law library. We’d meet in the law library at lunchtime and after work, and we drafted a grievance legislation. Up until that time, if you had a problem with anything in your career, whether it was dealing with the personnel system or some allowance that wasn’t paid to you, you essentially wrote a memo to the appropriate assistant secretary or the director general or the director of personnel, and he or she said yes or no or whatever. If there was a problem, you went in to see the director general or the director of personnel, and justice was done as they saw fit and there was no appeal. You could appeal to the secretary of state, of course, but that was really kind of a waste of time for people but it was the only recourse that people had . . . . The Thomas Group—and there was a fund that was put together, a Charles Thomas Fund— lobbied very hard and they found some supporters on the Hill . . . . But we then gave the grievance draft legislation to Senator Bayh’s office.
Q: Senator Bayh of Indiana.
HARRIS: Senator Bayh of Indiana—Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana—who was very interested in foreign affairs and a real champion of due process and a very concerned person about the Foreign Service and someone who had been really touched by the Thomas case, felt it was wrong and there were problems in the State Department. Since he was on the Foreign Affairs Committee, he felt that he had a responsibility and went along with the committee to work towards remedying that. He then introduced that as a law, as a legal proposal, and it almost passed the Congress. Well, the Department of State went into absolute panic, because the Bayh Bill, which of course we had written, was very tough and it provided a very full amount of due process review and meant that the secretary of state, which is the ultimate manager in the Department of State, had papal infallibility. This issue meant that we had all these people in arms because the august authority of the secretary of state was being challenged by these AFSA upstarts by drafting this legislation and getting Senator Birch Bayh, and this was really a threat to the republic. They then put forward legislation, which was mealy mouthed and terrible and weak and really did nothing to ameliorate the problems. What the Senate then did was, they said, “Okay, we will pass the Bayh Bill”—this is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee talking—“unless you and AFSA negotiate something.” We then began a negotiation process, which lasted for four or five years. It was finished under Lars Hydle. I began the negotiations, and they went on and it was just intractable, because the Department would not allow anything in which the secretary of state was not the final arbiter, and we would not accept the fact that the secretary of state would do the bidding of the director general and the others. That was just unacceptable, and the Department could not accept the principle that anybody other than the secretary of state—which meant management, because he would do what management told him to do—could make these decisions. So it went on for years, and we finally negotiated it, and it came out that the AFSA board had authority, had plenary authority, to make these decisions and essentially to overrule the secretary on issues. We signed the bill upstairs on the eighth floor in one of the small little chambers
“We essentially defended people, whether in effect it was something that we judged to be meritorious or not. People had a right to be heard, and so that went forward.”
Accountability Revitalized: Let’s talk about the grievance system. Once the grievance legislation negotiations had taken place and Eagleburger signed them, then began the very serious negotiations in terms of negotiating the implementing regulations, and that system went into place. That made an enormous difference for people because it meant that every decision that was made by a manager or management in the foreign affairs agency was subject to third-party review, and it brought in a new avenue of responsibility on the part of the Department of State’s managers. They had an opportunity to worry that their decisions were reviewable by outside parties, and they [not] only had to make sure that they were, as they always had been, consonant with what their bosses’ wishes were or what the bureau’s policies were, but [also] that they comported to a higher sense of justice. That was really a revolution, and AFSA hired attorneys and paralegals during the Boyatt board and afterwards and strengthened that section, so we began to be able to provide assistance to people who were being separated out or who lost allowances or the whole range of things from separation for cause to others. That has been a battle over the years in terms of disciplinary actions and how those were affected, but that was really a very important single contribution of the association and something that I was particularly involved in throughout—making sure that we had a system that worked.
Q: Did you have a certain review? There’s a difference between seeing that there’s due process or being the advocate of somebody. A normal lawyer will take on a case and doesn’t give a damn whether they’re guilty or innocent. I would think this would be a problem for you to look at a case. Is it difficult to be an advocate of somebody whom something is being done to, no matter what the merits of the case are.
HARRIS: Well, no, clearly that was the case. We essentially defended people, whether in effect it was something that we judged to be meritorious or not. People had a right to be heard, and so that went forward. There also developed a number of people in the outside bars who took these cases on and who worked diligently to defend or to represent people before the grievance board, but it meant that essentially there was accountability. There was accountability in the management of the foreign affairs agencies that there never had been, and that accountability was triggered not by the General Accounting Office, not by some congressman, but was triggered by an individual member of the Foreign Service complaining that something that had happened to them was not fair or was wrong, and that was important.
“If a case came forward that had major implications to others in the Foreign Service, then AFSA would get behind it and put more resources into that particular case, because it would benefit not only the individual but would benefit others.”
Q: But did you see a pattern, though, developing of professional complainers?
Q: Could you talk about that?
HARRIS: This was always tough. We always had people who—and I think our society has this—who were litigious, who would have a sense that if something wrong had happened to them it must be somebody else’s fault and not theirs, and would complain. We would try to advise people that this kind of case was not going to be successful and would give them the necessary help in terms of process and so forth. If a case came forward that had major implications to others in the Foreign Service, then AFSA would get behind it and put more resources into that particular case, because it would benefit not only the individual but would benefit others.
Let me give you a case in point. The diplomatic security agents were told one day that they were all managers, and consequently under the overtime, the federal pay laws, anyone who is a manager has a very limited right to overtime. Well, the people who are responsible for the protection in the close personal security detail for the secretary of state may work 100 percent overtime a week. Their work weeks may be eighty or a hundred hours a week, and under this provision of law, as managers they would be precluded from claiming except a small portion of that overtime pay, so it saved the Department of State tens and tens of thousands of dollars every pay period by having these people classified as managers. Well, there was one very brave security officer, who had a shaved head—one of the first Foreign Service guys I ever saw with a shaved head—who said, this is wrong. He said, “The only thing I manage is my gun. I have to keep it clean. I have no other management responsibilities at all.” So he filed a grievance and then went to the courts, and AFSA supported him in his claim, which was for about a hundred thousand dollars of back overtime because he had carefully kept a record of all the time he had worked on the secretary’s detail in New York City, working literally sixteen- and seventeen-hour days during those periods.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA in Politics and Philosophy, Princeton University 1956–1960
Law School, University of Texas 1963–1965
Joined the Foreign Service 1965
Washington, D.C.—Economic Bureau, Staff Assistant 1968–1970
Washington, D.C.—Leave without pay; AFSA, Board Vice President ~1970–1971
Buenos Aires, Argentina—Political Officer 1977–1979
Durban, South Africa—Consul General 1987–1990
Washington, D.C.—American Foreign Service Association, President 1993–1997