Unions walk out of Pentagon personnel system meetings

By Shawn Zeller

Five unions walked out of meetings Monday with Defense Department officials that aimed to resolve differences over the Pentagon's new civil service personnel system. The walkout occurred just days before the management-union discussions were scheduled to end.

In a statement, National Federation of Federal Employees President Richard N. Brown called the "meet-and-confer" process, which started in April, "a sham." He added that Defense management has not considered union recommendations. "This process has been nothing but an attack on the rights of federal workers," he said.

In total, the five unions--NFFE, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National Association of Government Employees, and the Metal Trades Department of the AFL-CIO--represent more than 100,000 Defense workers. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the bulk of Defense workers, continues to attend the meetings, though it too has criticized Defense management over the way it has handled the sessions.

The 30-day meet-and-confer period was mandated by Congress in the 2003 Defense Authorization Act, legislation that authorized the Pentagon to create a new personnel system for its 650,000 civil servants.

Since then, Defense employee unions have complained that Defense management has not negotiated with them over the details of the new system. Defense managers insist that the legislation does not require them to negotiate.

However, Pentagon leaders said they would share details during the meet-and-confer stage, and would consider union recommendations before final regulations are issued.

Leaders from more than 35 unions formed the United Defense Workers Coalition to lobby against the new system.

The coalition objects to preliminary rules issued in February, criticizing Defense's move to limit union bargaining rights, create stricter disciplinary rules, and replace the General Schedule with a pay-for-performance system. And union officials say that Defense has not budged during the meet-and-confer sessions.

Byron W. Charlton, a legislative representative with the AFL-CIO, who is leading the coalition during the meet-and-confer process, said he would push ahead despite the walk-out. But he said that the other coalition members understood the decision to walk out. "Each union is guided by the dictates of its membership. They decide what they are going to do," he said. "It does send a strong message that we are tired and frustrated with the lack of sincerity and progress."

Charlton said that union leaders are particularly frustrated with Defense's insistence that the new system allow the Defense secretary to implement "issuances" that could override collective bargaining agreements.

Union leaders won support from some members of Congress last month at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., for one, said he was "deeply troubled by a number of aspects of the draft regulation which appear to send the message to department employees that the leadership of the Department of Defense isn't interested in ensuring that they're treated with the fairness and equity that they deserve."