February 9, 2004

Unions step up opposition to Defense personnel overhaul

By David McGlinchey

Union leaders said Monday that a new Pentagon labor plan uses military action abroad as an excuse to strip federal workers of their rights and their union representation.

At a spirited press conference in Washington, speakers called for political action and civil disobedience to fight recently proposed labor-management changes. The Defense Department released a memo Friday detailing the plan.

"This has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with wiping out unions," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. Last year, Congress granted Defense broad exemptions from civil service employment regulations. Citing demands from the war on terrorism and the military action in Iraq, lawmakers gave the Pentagon the right to create its own personnel system.

Gage said that it was "a lie" to link the personnel policy adjustments and military action abroad.

He said that senior administration officials had used "patriotic platitudes" to push their own vision for restructuring labor relations in the Defense Department. He also accused Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Defense Undersecretary David Chu of misleading Congress.

"Secretary Rumsfeld assured Congress that he would not use these powers to end collective bargaining. But in his list of proposals, he does just that," Gage said. "We had assurances that this was not a union-busting approach. Well let me tell you, this is a union-busting approach."

A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to comment on the union allegations. In a recent interview with National Journal, however, Chu said that the Pentagon's civilian employees must become agile enough to support the uniformed military.

Union members are particularly concerned about provisions that would allow the Pentagon more leeway to conduct layoffs and eliminate the current collective bargaining system.

If the plan were put into place, Defense civilian employees could continue to join unions, but an alternative system also would be established under which employees could contract with a union to represent them in certain situations for a fee. Some Defense employees -- including accountants, intelligence officials and attorneys -- would not be allowed to join unions. Defense managers also would have the right to waive collective bargaining during national security emergencies.

Union representatives said Pentagon officials would simply declare emergencies when it was convenient for them.

Under the new plans, Defense would likely scrap the General Schedule pay system and allow managers to set pay and bonuses and determine performance ratings.

"Clearly, the Bush administration would like to dictate that federal workers have no more options and rights than the typical Wal-Mart worker," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

"They plan to drive down working standards to the lowest level possible, and they've put the workers' union in their sights to do it."

Union leaders also said that the proposed system would eliminate the current procedures for filing grievances. The Pentagon has proposed creating a Defense Labor Relations Board to resolve disputes and appeals. AFGE President Gage said that under the current proposal, the labor board would be stacked with management representatives.

"They're going to set up a board that they pick, they choose, that works for them," he said.

"What on earth does any of this have to do with national security? In fact, in times as perilous as these, sticking it to defense workers will only serve to disenfranchise a workforce that has served the nation honorably."

AFGE announced plans to bring hundreds of union members to Capitol Hill to register their opposition to the labor proposal.

"This is smoke and mirrors. It's the world according to Rumsfeld and nobody else," said Rick Brown, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. Speakers said that union members would not use civil disobedience to compromise national security, but they promised to make themselves heard.

"It's time for federal workers to get militant," Brown said.