Defense ends conversations with unions over personnel system

By Shawn Zeller

Pentagon officials halted discussions with Defense Department unions Thursday, paving the way for Defense to issue final regulations implementing a new civilian personnel system.

The "meet-and-confer" discussions with union leaders were mandated by Congress and began April 18. They were extended in late May for an additional two days in June.

Mary Lacey, program executive officer for the new Defense personnel system, said in a statement, "The door is still open for additional communications and proposal submissions," and added union leaders will now have an opportunity to meet with senior leadership at Defense and the Office of Personnel Management. Lacey, her staff, and George Nesterczuk and Ronald Sanders of OPM, had led meet-and-confer sessions, but Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and the new OPM director will make the final decisions regarding the personnel system.

Lacey said the meet-and-confer discussions were productive. "DoD and OPM gained a great deal from the process and will make several recommended changes to the proposed regulations as a result of union input," she said, without specifying what those changes might be.

Union leaders, however, said the meetings had accomplished little. "I never participated in a greater exercise in futility," said American Federation of Government Employees General Counsel Mark Roth.

AFGE was the largest member of the United Defense Workers Coalition, a 35-union group that met with Defense and Office of Personnel Management leaders. Congress mandated the discussions in 2003 legislation that allowed Defense to create the new personnel system.

In preliminary regulations, released in February, Defense indicated that it planned to dispense with the decades-old General Schedule pay system in favor of one that set pay raises based on managerial evaluations of employee performance. The preliminary rules also specified that Defense would restrict collective bargaining and tighten disciplinary rules.

Unions have blasted most aspects of the plan, saying it will lead to cronyism, silence whistleblowers and hurt morale. Six unions walked out of the meet-and-confer talks late last month, protesting what they said was Defense's unwillingness to compromise.

Now that the discussions are over, Defense leaders will work with OPM to hammer out final regulations, which should be announced later this year. Then Defense will begin to implement the system unless union leaders can convince Congress to intervene.