February 6, 2004

Unions object to Pentagon labor-management proposal

By Shawn Zeller

A Defense Department memorandum aimed at kicking off discussions about the pending National Security Personnel System is prompting angry denunciations from labor union officials.

Pentagon officials sent the memo to union representatives on Friday explaining the agency's thinking on labor-management relations under the new system.

The memo does not include definitive information about how the new personnel system will function, but outlines several possibilities that the department is considering.

Union advocates are already expressing concern over several parts of the proposal. American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage Friday called on Congress to block "the first step to the wholesale destruction of the civil service system."

AFGE spokesman John Irvine said the union is concerned about a provision that would allow the agency to conduct reductions in force, or layoffs, without considering veterans preference, and eliminate all provisions of the old labor-relations system at the agency, which was governed by chapter 71 of Title 5 of the U.S. Code.

Matt Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, said the union was concerned about provisions in the memo that would apparently bar federal workers from attending to union business during their work days.

Last year, Congress passed legislation giving the Defense Department broad exemptions from Title 5, which sets rules for civil service employment, and gave the Pentagon the right to create a new personnel system.

According to the memo, Defense Department officials are considering establishing a Defense Labor Relations Board that would operate independently of Defense management and would include five to seven members. Defense unions would appoint an unspecified number of the members. The board would resolve labor-management disputes and might also adjudicate employee disciplinary appeals, replacing the Merit Systems Protection Board's adjudicatory function.

Under the terms of the legislation, however, Defense employees will retain the right to appeal decisions of the new in-house panel to the three-member MSPB in Washington.

Under the proposal, Defense civilian employees could continue to join unions, but a "fee-for-service" arrangement also would be established, allowing employees to contract with a union to represent them in certain situations for a fee.

Unions oppose that provision, arguing that it would lead some members to quit, believing they could secure union representation at less expense on an as-needed basis.

Employees in certain jobs, such as human resources workers, intelligence officials, attorneys and those hired on term-limited assignments, would not be eligible to join unions.

Union dues would be collected through payroll deductions, but members would have the right to cancel dues payments at any time after one year of membership in the union. Union representatives would prefer to limit the window for members to opt out to a single day each year, or a single month.

Defense Department managers would have the right to waive collective bargaining during emergencies or for national security reasons. And under the proposal, managers also would have the right to set pay, cash awards and incentive pay, and determine performance ratings and buyouts. The Defense Department would likely scrap the General Schedule pay system.

Consultation between the unions and Defense management on bargaining issues would be limited to 60 days. If the unions and management were unable to reach agreement, management could move forward with the changes it proposed. The Defense Labor Relations Board could review the consultation to make sure that proper procedures were followed, but could not order management to withdraw its proposals.

Issues affecting all union members would be bargained at the national level, replacing a system where Defense bargained with all local union affiliates.

Union representatives said they would meet with Defense officials later this month to discuss the proposals.