Published: February 16, 2004

Union-busting, DoD style: Work-force plan would slash unions' membership, influence

By TIM KAUFFMAN

The Defense Department is proposing to drastically cut the size and influence of its unions.

At least half of the more than 400,000 employees covered by collective bargaining units could lose that right under DoD's proposal. It would be harder for employees to join a bargaining unit and easier for them to drop out. Third-party reviews of employees' appeals and union grievances would be replaced with in-house reviews. Unions could consult with management on big changes to work conditions, but management would have the final say.

Pentagon officials said the proposed changes in conjunction with a still unannounced pay and personnel system overhaul are critical ingredients for a more responsive and high-quality work force.

"There are serious problems with the way the encrusted version of Title 5 has come down to us, with making the civil personnel system of the Department of Defense effective for a military force in the early 21st century," said David Chu, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness. "We have a pretty good civil service, but we need to be substantially better, and we need to be substantially more agile and responsive to needs."

Chu said the department aims to design its own personnel system, and apply it to 300,000 employees by Oct. 1.

The Navy has volunteered to be one of the first Defense components brought under the new system, a Defense official said. In addition, Navy Secretary Gordon England will help Defense leaders roll out the system across the department.

But Defense already is encountering bitter opposition along the way.

The 13-page proposal on labor-management rule changes, released Feb. 6, enraged labor leaders and prompted lawmakers to question whether the Pentagon would abide by the cooperative spirit of the November law that authorized the sweeping personnel reforms. Even union chiefs who don't represent Defense employees condemned the proposal out of concern that other agencies may follow suit.

"We've fought for years for basic rights, for fairness and dignity on the work site," said John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal union. "And to have them just pulled off the table is something we just can't stand for."

Union leaders warned the changes would gut workplace protections for employees, fuel labor-management animosity and mistrust, and kick off the dismantling of collective bargaining rights across government.

Chu, who is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's top deputy on personnel issues, told Federal Times the options proposed will evolve as the department discusses them with the unions.

"It's a starting point. I don't really think we're wedded to these ideas in any strong sense," Chu said. "We're very hopeful everyone will calm down and enter into this dialogue in the spirit it was intended."

Unions will counter with their own proposed reforms Feb. 23 and begin formal discussions with Defense officials Feb. 26 and 27.

The need for reform

Most important in DoD's collective bargaining proposal, Chu said, is its call to move to national collective bargaining instead of local bargaining.

Now Defense negotiates with more than 1,300 recognized bargaining units to change work conditions, such as how employees are paid and managed.

"National bargaining I think is an opportunity for the department to put itself in a much better place vis-à-vis our unions in terms of the relationship that we have so we get a good national dialogue for our human resource issues," Chu said. "The union leadership needs to be a partner in moving these human resource issues forward."

One of the department's objectives is to convert tens of thousands of jobs now performed by military members to civilians, so troops can concentrate on war-fighting efforts. But the current labor and personnel rules embodied in Title 5 are too restrictive to allow this, Chu said.

Congress authorized the department to rewrite personnel, pay and labor-management rules for its 746,000-employee civilian work force in the 2004 National Defense Authorization Act.

Some experts agree on the need to overhaul the way DoD relates with its unions.

"DoD has hundreds of different unions. To try to do anything systematic across the department in that environment, it's almost impossible," said Tim Barnhart, a federal human resources consultant who has worked for several Defense agencies. "They tend to represent a disgruntled minority and they tend to not be in a position to facilitate progress. They tend to be an obstacle."

For example, Defense received authority in 1996 to test various pay and personnel reforms for 95,000 Defense acquisition employees. But because of union objections to applying the reforms to its members, Defense initially could cover only 5,000 non-union employees, according to Jacques Gansler, Defense undersecretary for acquisition and technology under President Clinton.

"The law allowed me to have a much larger experiment, but because of union opposition it ended up being a much smaller number," Gansler said. "They lobbied very strongly against even the experiment and lobbied their people against joining the experiment."

But some labor officials argue reforms can be accomplished if management and union officials worked better together.

For example, about 370 union employees who develop weapons systems at Fort Monmouth, N.J., are covered under the same acquisition project begun under Gansler. The union signed off on the project after management agreed to several conditions, including a third-party review of performance evaluations and a guarantee that employees rated successful would receive the annual pay increase given to other civilian employees.

"Good management and good employees and good unions work together to make a system that's better," said John Poitras, president of AFGE Local 1904 at Fort Monmouth.

Questions over specifics

One controversial aspect of DoD's proposal is its call to bar from collective bargaining all employees who must be certified to work, unless a majority vote otherwise under the tougher voting standards Defense proposed. Chu said the intent is to exclude employees in professional occupations and to clarify what is considered a professional job. The Defense outline says such positions would include the department's 115,000 acquisition, technology and logistics employees, as well as accountants and teachers. The unions argue the exclusion also would extend to employees in blue-collar trades, such as electricians and plumbers, who often must be certified.

The unions also question the need for Defense's proposal to change the criteria for employees to join or leave unions. Defense would require a majority of employees in a given bargaining unit to vote for representation. The current standard requires a majority of only those employees who actually vote.

"They have set up a system for union elections that no current elected official could meet in their own elections if they were applied to them," said Colleen Kelley, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

The proposal also would allow union members to cancel their dues any time after the first year, as opposed to during a specific period each year.

Some lawmakers question the merits of the proposals and whether Defense is committed to working with the unions on developing the system, as required under the November law.

House Democratic Whip Steney Hoyer of Maryland said the department should throw out the proposal, although he stopped short of calling for Congress to revisit the legislation it passed last year.

"I call on Secretary Rumsfeld to abandon his personnel plans and will work to ensure that Congress continues to scrutinize the merits and effectiveness of these changes if they are implemented," Hoyer said in a statement.

AFGE held a protest rally at the Capitol on Feb. 11 to call lawmakers' attention to the proposed changes, but few union leaders or employees seem to believe lawmakers will do anything. Instead, they say the only real option is to march to the voting booth in November and remove President Bush and his Cabinet from office.

"The only way this is going to be changed is if we change administrations," said Don Hale, president of AFGE Local 2367 in West Point, N.Y.

A work in progress

Chu said whatever personnel system ultimately is created almost certainly will be refined in subsequent years.

"It would be a hideous mistake to think that this is being poured in concrete," Chu said. "We're going to evaluate its performance on an ongoing basis. If it works well in particular areas, then we celebrate that fact and we enforce those successes. If the results are weak . . . then we will all want to readdress the tools we are using and the approach we are taking."

But the onus is on Defense to get it right. Unless Congress votes otherwise, the labor relations system will expire in November 2009, six years after the act was passed, and Defense would revert back to the current personnel system based on Title 5.

A role for OPM?

Defense must publish specifics of the system in regulations issued jointly with the director of the Office of Personnel Management. OPM was not present at a Jan. 22 meeting between Defense officials and labor leaders that marked the beginning of actual talks, however, and it did not have any input into the development of the labor relations outline.

OPM declined to comment on the labor relations proposal. But Clarence Crawford, associate director for management at OPM, acknowledged the lack of any substantive input thus far during a conference call with reporters to discuss OPM's budget request Feb. 6.

"We're now just beginning to have some conversations with the Department of Defense. I don't believe we've quite figured out what the level and nature of the support will be, but those conversations are ongoing," Crawford said.

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, who inserted language in the act requiring OPM's participation, complained of DoD's approach.

"I am concerned about reports that DoD is taking a top-down approach rather than engaging in a collaborative process to develop the new personnel system," said Collins, R-Maine. "It's important that federal employee representatives and OPM be fully involved in the development of the personnel reforms."

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