Six Unions Withdraw From Pentagon Talks on Workforce Rules

By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Six unions told the Defense Department yesterday that they were pulling out of closed-door talks about new rules that would change how civil service employees in the department are paid, promoted and disciplined.

"We're not going to lend our good name to a system that has no credibility," said Ronald E. Ault , president of the Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO. "We are withdrawing our participation."

The unions pulled out because Pentagon officials would not give assurances that certain issues could remain on the table for bargaining, Ault said. Under the Pentagon's proposal, the secretary of defense could issue a directive overriding a contract or any part of a contract. The proposal also would sharply restrict bargaining by ensuring that unions cannot raise questions about the number of employees, technology and means of performing work.

In addition to the Metal Trades, other unions protesting the talks were the National Federation of Federal Employees, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National Association of Government Employees and the National Association of Independent Laborers.

Except for the Independent Laborers, the unions are part of a labor coalition, involving 36 unions, that have engaged the Pentagon under a 30-day "meet and confer" period required by Congress. The meet-and-confer process will end Thursday.

Ault said the five coalition unions would hold a news conference this morning to explain their objections in detail.

The controversy over bargaining rights began shortly after the Pentagon published a proposed regulation Feb. 14 that would create the National Security Personnel System. In addition to weakening unions, the NSPS would speed up employee appeals of disciplinary action and would more closely link pay to job performance ratings.

Yesterday, a union spokesman said the rest of the labor coalition plans to continue meeting with Pentagon and Office of Personnel Management officials this week on NSPS proposals. The coalition and the administration exchanged a new round of ideas yesterday, but union officials said they were skeptical that a breakthrough could be achieved.

Mary E. Lacey , program executive officer for the NSPS, called the pullout by the six unions "unfortunate" but said yesterday's talks were productive. In addition to the ideas presented by unions, the administration "presented numerous recommended changes to the proposed regulations based on their comments and discussions during meet and confer. We remain committed to the process and to working with the unions as we identify some areas of common ground."

Despite the appearance of movement in the talks, union leaders in recent days have dismissed the talks as an exercise in frustration, contending that high-level Bush administration officials have no intention of allowing meaningful debate on substantive issues.

"It's smoke and mirrors, trying to run the clock out," Ault said.

Richard N. Brown , the NFFE president, called the talks "a sham" and said, "We can no longer participate when they cannot participate in good faith."

EEOC Vote Delayed

The chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission yesterday delayed a vote on a reorganization plan for the agency to provide more time for members of Congress, union officials and employees to offer comments.

The decision by Cari M. Dominguez , EEOC chairman, to postpone the vote apparently came at the last minute. Agency officials, including Commissioner Stuart J. Ishimaru , had gathered in the EEOC conference room and, after several minutes, were informed that the vote was off.

In recent days, members of Congress and civil rights leaders have expressed concern about the reorganization, which would reduce the number of district directors by one-third.

"I am pleased that Chairwoman Dominguez has heard our concerns about rushing to a vote on restructuring. . . . Millions of Americans who face discrimination rely on the EEOC to protect their rights; we cannot allow any change in the agency's structure to weaken those protections," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a statement.

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