March 3, 2004
Unions Ask Help Of Congress On Pentagon's New Civil Service System
By Stephen Barr
Pentagon officials and union representatives are off to a rocky start in their talks on how to construct a new labor-management relations system for Defense Department civil service employees.
According to union accounts, a meeting held last week on the Pentagon's "concepts" did not go well, with numerous labor representatives expressing dismay at what they heard from Defense officials.
Yesterday, 23 labor organizations involved in the meeting announced that they were calling on Congress to intervene and ensure that labor rights are not overridden as the Pentagon creates a new civilian personnel system.
Defense officials say they do not intend to eliminate unions or collective bargaining but are searching for a new approach that would be binding on both sides and would supersede existing contracts, as provided under a new law.
The goal is to come up with a new bargaining model that would "move us from a fragmented, slow-moving approach to one that is more focused and streamlined," said Ginger Groeber, deputy undersecretary for civilian personnel policy at Defense.
The protest by the unions has raised some concerns on Capitol Hill.
Yesterday, at a hearing on the defense budget, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) told Navy Secretary Gordon England that he thinks the Pentagon "got off on the wrong foot" on the new personnel system. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) said the Senate Armed Services Committee will be "running comparisons" between Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, which will soon start revamping its pay and personnel rules. Warner promised "constant oversight on this as you move ahead on it."
Last year, Homeland Security and Office of Personnel Management officials held numerous sessions with unions, including a three-day public meeting, before issuing proposed regulations that would curb the role of unions there. Although labor leaders oppose many of the changes planned for the department, they have praised Secretary Tom Ridge for his willingness to listen to their views.
Congress, as part of the fiscal 2004 defense authorization act, granted permission to the Pentagon to create a "National Security Personnel System" that would emphasize performance-based pay and overhaul numerous workplace rules. Much of the planning for the new system has been overseen by Groeber and David S.C. Chu, Defense undersecretary for personnel.
Union representatives contend the Pentagon is going beyond what Congress intended by redefining "collective bargaining" as "consultation" and by discussing proposals that would set aside union contracts, exclude some categories of Defense employees from union jurisdiction and create in-house boards to decide grievances rather than independent third parties.
Don Hale, who attended last week's meeting on behalf of the Defense Conference of the American Federation of Government Employees, said Pentagon officials "feel they are entitled to change the definition of collective bargaining unilaterally."
Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said: "I don't use the term loosely -- it is union busting. They don't want unions anymore in the Department of Defense."
In a written response to questions submitted before yesterday's union announcement, Groeber said that "the door continues to remain open" and that she expected "it will take time and considerable experience to reach a more complete understanding and acceptance of these changes."
Defense, she said, "would like to redefine, not replace, the term 'collective bargaining'. . . . The current model too often is a disincentive for the parties to reach timely understandings and agreements on substantive issues. We want to move to a new model of collective bargaining which the law refers to as a 'collaborative issue-based approach to labor management relations.' "
David J. Holway, president of the National Association of Government Employees, said such changes would "regulate unions to the role of consultants."
Hale said he did not think Defense officials could be swayed. "Unless Congress steps in and holds them accountable, I think it is set in stone," he said.