For the second year in a row, hundreds of federal employees marched on Capitol Hill yesterday to protest new personnel rules for the Defense Department that union leaders say would weaken civilian workers' rights and erode the quality of their jobs without enhancing national security.
Members of the American Federation of Government Employees said they will urge lawmakers to take a hard look at Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's plans to rewrite work rules affecting nearly 750,000 civilian workers. Leaders of other federal employee unions said their members will take the same message to congressional offices in the coming weeks.
The rules are to be released in the next few days, although union officials have gotten glimpses of their guiding principles during discussions with defense officials. The rules "are a massive overhaul that will gut pay standards, appeal rights and collective-bargaining rights," John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said during the AFGE's annual legislative conference yesterday. "These new rules will turn good jobs . . . into McJobs, Wal-Mart-type jobs."
Joyce K. Frank, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the National Security Personnel System (NSPS) will strengthen the department's operations without trampling on employees' rights.
"NSPS will improve the way DOD hires, assigns, compensates and rewards its employees while preserving the core merit principles, veterans' preference and important employee protections and benefits of the current system," Frank said.
Congress gave Pentagon officials the authority to craft a new personnel system in 2003 after Rumsfeld argued that managers needed more power over how workers are paid, promoted, deployed and disciplined to better fight the war on terrorism. The administration won similar authority to rewrite personnel rules as part of legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security in 2002.
DHS officials unveiled their new personnel system last month, immediately drawing criticism from the AFGE and the National Treasury Employees Union leaders, who said it would undermine the employees' morale, limit their workplace rights and ultimately slow the growth of their salaries.
The new DHS system, which will take years to implement, will replace the General Schedule pay system with one of broad salary ranges attached to jobs grouped by occupation. It links raises to the results of annual performance evaluations. And it curtails the power of labor unions by no longer requiring DHS officials to negotiate over such matters as where employees will be deployed, the type of work they will do and the equipment they will use.
Union officials predict that the Defense system will be even tougher for workers to swallow.
There will be a 30-day public comment period after publication of the new rules in the Federal Register, followed by a period in which the department is to confer with employee unions. Pentagon officials have said they hope to begin implementing the system in July.
The White House plans to ask Congress to allow all federal agencies to rewrite their personnel rules, citing the new systems at Defense and Homeland Security as potential templates for civil service changes across the government.
AFGE President John Gage vowed yesterday to fight any such expansion. "We're not going to have a second-class civil service in a first-class country," he said.