House blocks Pentagon labor relations system funding

By Karen Rutzick

The House voted Tuesday evening to strip the Defense Department of funding for its new civilian labor relations system.

An amendment to the fiscal 2007 Defense spending bill would prevent any agency appropriations from being used for portions of the National Security Personnel System that govern collective bargaining, labor-management disputes, and adverse actions and appeals. It passed with a voice vote.

The provision's sponsors -- Reps. Walter Jones, R-N.C.; Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; and Jay Inslee, D-Wash. -- said the amendment is in response to a February court ruling, now under appeal, finding those aspects of the Pentagon's personnel reforms illegal.

"This amendment...would not arbitrarily kill the system as a whole," Jones said, "but allow Congress to carry out its oversight responsibility by saving taxpayer dollars from being spent on portions of a program that have lost the legal challenge."

Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said he enjoined the labor relations system because, among other things, it allowed the Pentagon to negate collective bargaining agreements after the fact.

Sullivan also ruled against the Pentagon's plan to install a new internal National Security Labor Relations Board, whose members would be appointed by the Defense secretary, to replace the independent, governmentwide Federal Labor Relations Authority in adjudicating labor-management disputes.

In a letter to fellow members of Congress urging support for the amendment, Van Hollen said the Pentagon ignored Congress' intent when authorizing NSPS for the department to consult with unions in designing the system.

After months of meetings with a coalition representing civilian defense workers, Van Hollen said, "DoD officials ignored the coalition's proposals and made it clear they want unlimited authority with no outside review that would ensure employees' fair treatment."

In debate on the House floor, Van Hollen said Judge Sullivan stuck up for Congress.

"The question is," Van Hollen asked, "Are we going to stick up for ourselves? Did we mean what we said back there? A federal judge has looked at the law and said, clearly, the DoD provisions are outside the scope of what we intended."

The amendment would not divert funds from the human resources portions of NSPS, which include pay for performance and paybanding systems to replace the decades-old General Schedule for the Defense Department's 700,000 civilian employees. The first group -- 11,000 workers not in bargaining units -- entered the new system in late April.

NSPS spokeswoman Joyce Frank said the Pentagon will work closely with conferees to remove the amendment, which interferes with the "design [of] a 21st century human resources management system."

Frank also said the department is reviewing the amendment to determine if, in fact, it affects funding for provisions that are not under legal challenge.

"Politics and patronage have no place in determining which Americans help defend our nation and fight the war on terrorism," Inslee said. "Defense Department civil servants in Puget Sound and across the nation deserve basic worker protections and rights."

The coalition of Defense Department labor unions that brought the lawsuit against the system applauded the amendment's passage.

"As we move toward Senate action and ultimately to conference," said Gregory Junemann, president of coalition member the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, "[We] will continue to work hand in hand to put an end to NSPS."