November 10, 2003

Hard Labor

By Shawn Zeller

When John Gage was elected president of the American Federation of Government Employees in August, the union declared that Gage would lead the AFGE's 200,000 members in battling "the most hostile administration that government employees have faced in several decades."

In the months since then, Gage has indeed taken the fight to the Bush administration, but he has not been fighting alone. Along with AFGE, the National Treasury Employees Union and smaller groups that represent federal workers have organized rallies, run radio and newspaper ads in at least 14 states, and spent record amounts of money on lobbying - all trying to stop the administration's plan to rewrite civil service rules at the Homeland Security Department and the Defense Department.

Gage, a former disability examiner for the Social Security Administration and a longtime Baltimore-based labor leader, charges that administration hard-liners want to eviscerate the merit-based protections that have been central to the federal civil service system since the late 19th century. The goal of the union's aggressive lobbying campaign, he said, is to ensure that the system "never goes back to the days of patronage."

The bill that created the Homeland Security Department in 2002 authorized Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge and Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James to rewrite the civil service rules governing the 200,000 employees at the new department. This year, the administration went one step further by submitting a proposal to Congress that would give the Defense secretary similar flexibility to reshape the rules for the Defense Department's 700,000 civilian employees. AFGE represents workers at both Homeland Security and the Pentagon.

The House and Senate have passed bills reflecting Bush's proposal for DOD and are working out the details in a conference committee. Administration officials argue that to effectively fight the war on terrorism, managers at both departments need flexibility from civil service rules to hire new workers quickly, to promote top employees, and to fire poor performers.

As of now, though, it's not clear what exactly a new personnel system for Defense or Homeland Security would look like. Under last year's legislation, Homeland Security already has authority to waive certain sections of the civil service law, but Congress provided little guidance on how a new system should be designed. The Defense Department proposal submitted by Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last April asked for similar waiver authority but, again, supplied few details on what Defense would do if granted the waivers.

The fact that the details are vague troubles the unions and their advocates in Congress. "We're worried about simply giving to a political appointee carte blanche authority to configure the personnel system as they see fit," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

Nevertheless, the House voted overwhelmingly Friday to approve a bill granting Defense officials broad authority to rewrite civil service rules. Under the bill, Defense must work with employee groups and OPM to develop and implement the new system.

A broad swath of civil service experts and agency managers argue that the existing civil service system puts too many constraints on managers who want to hire, promote, or fire workers more rapidly. A bipartisan commission chaired by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker issued recommendations last year that backed such reforms.

"This is not rocket science, and frankly, in terms of personnel management, it's not even controversial," said David Chu, the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, and the architect of the DOD plan. The department desperately needs to loosen its hiring procedures to bring in a new generation of employees, Chu said, and to retain top workers by offering them faster promotions.

President Clinton had, albeit in a less aggressive fashion, pushed for similar civil service reform. "The notion that a manager should not have substantial control, in this day and age, over the recruitment and evaluation of people who work for them is archaic," said Elaine Kamarck, who guided Clinton's civil service reform team and now lectures at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

In Gage's view, however, the Bush proposals have nothing to do with managerial flexibility and "everything to do with outright de-unionization." Under the Defense Department proposal, he points out, the Defense secretary would have the right to waive collective bargaining. During congressional testimony this year, Rumsfeld said the intent of the waiver is to cut the time it takes to work out union-management disputes by allowing Defense to bargain only with the national offices of the unions rather than the 1,300-plus locals that the department must now deal with.

At the same time, the administration proposals would allow departments to replace the General Schedule that sets pay and promotions for federal employees with a pay-for-performance system. The unions argue that that could bring back the graft and political patronage that ran rampant in the 19th-century civil service. The unions prefer the current General Schedule system that provides equal pay to government employees doing similar jobs, ensures a regular pay raise to all employees, and severely limits the power of political appointees to dismiss civil servants.

Still another union concern is that the Bush proposals would substitute in-house disciplinary systems for the current system that allows most federal employees to appeal disciplinary actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board. The MSPB, an independent federal agency established by the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, has the authority to overturn agency actions, and does so in about 25 percent of cases. Gage and other union advocates argue that in-house systems would be more sympathetic to department management.

So far, the debate over a new system at Homeland Security has been less contentious than that at Defense, because union leaders at DHS were part of a design team that prepared various options for Ridge and James to review. The team presented the options at a three-day public meeting late last month in Washington. AFGE rallied more than 250 members to show up for each day of the meeting, and Gage said the unions were hopeful that their concerns would be taken into consideration when Ridge and James announce their decision in the next few weeks. There is, of course, no guarantee.

The Defense proposal has caused more consternation because the unions fear that Rumsfeld would implement changes without consulting them. The AFGE held a lobbying "D-Day" in September to put pressure on the congressional conference committee members considering the DOD proposal. The day marked the beginning of an 18-city, 14-state radio ad campaign produced by the Washington firm MacWilliams, Robinson & Partners and targeted to the conference committee members.

"The politicians in Washington want to take away the rights of the hard-working employees of the Department of Defense," Gage says in the ad, calling on Defense employees to get involved and call their AFGE locals. "They want to take us back to the days of patronage by eliminating the laws that provide decent pay and fairness."

The day's events also included rallies around the country, as well as lobbying visits and phone calls to Senate and House offices. A series of print ads that ran in The Arizona Republic, The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and the Las Vegas Review Journal were designed to put pressure on three key members of the Senate Armed Services Committee: John McCain, R-Ariz., Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and John Ensign, R-Nev. In October, the union ran additional radio ads in Virginia aimed at influencing Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va.

AFGE has been equally aggressive in Washington. Beth Moten, the union's top lobbyist, has led a 13-person team that spent $440,000 on lobbying during the first six months of 2003, the most money the union has spent in any six-month period since Congress began requiring such disclosures in 1996. Over the summer, the AFGE also hired Enid Doggett, previously a vice president at the PR firm Ketchum, to head its public-relations campaign.

Meanwhile, the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents workers in Homeland Security's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, also set a record by spending $220,000 on lobbying during the first six months of 2003. NTEU's president, Colleen Kelley, has joined Gage at almost every press conference and congressional hearing. Other smaller employee groups have joined the fray, including the National Association of Agriculture Employees, which represents agriculture inspectors at DHS, and the Merit Systems Protection Board Professional Association, which represents judges who hear appeals of agency disciplinary actions.

For the first time in years, the MSPB professionals hired an outside lobbyist: former House staffer Timothy Moore, who has arranged about 25 meetings with members of Congress or their staffs to urge rejection of the Defense proposal. MSPB Judge Daniel Turbitt, the vice president of the professional association, says that an internal appeals system would not have the same credibility as the board. Is an internal system "a true opportunity to be heard?" he asked. "Or is it merely a slam dunk for the agency?"

Recognizing that they have to play tough defense in order to forestall the Bush administration plan, the unions have already shown surprising strength on some issues. In September, the House voted with the unions 381-39 to raise federal employee pay by 4.1 percent next year, as compared with Bush's proposed 2 percent raise. Also that month, 26 Republican House members voted for a union-backed amendment in an appropriations bill aimed at blocking President Bush's plan to put more federal jobs up for private-sector competition. Both of those votes were seen as big union victories, but with the fate of 900,000 federal employees at DHS and DOD now on the table, the biggest challenge lies ahead.