At Rally, Searing Rhetoric Against Overhauling the Defense Personnel System

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Washington's hot and humid weather served as a battle cry for several speakers at a union rally yesterday in a Senate park across Constitution Avenue from the Capitol.

"It is hot out here," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, told the crowd of federal union members, "but you want to make it hotter."

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) urged the union activists "to apply some of the heat in this plaza to members of Congress."

"Raise some hell," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) advised.

The heated rhetoric was aimed at the National Security Personnel System, an ambitious Pentagon plan to overhaul pay and personnel rules for Defense Department civil service employees. Rally speakers denounced the NSPS and urged union members to lobby Congress to block them.

"We think Congress has been snookered and misled," Byron W. Charlton , an AFL-CIO official helping lead the United Department of Defense Workers Coalition, told the crowd.

The union effort to roll back the Pentagon's plan may be too starting too late, however.

The Pentagon published a proposed regulation four months ago that would toss out the decades-old General Schedule pay system and replace it with the NSPS, a performance-based system that Pentagon officials contend will better reward the department's best workers. The NSPS also would revamp how employees appeal disciplinary actions and would limit the power of unions to bargain over workplace rules.

Although Congress has held a handful of hearings on the Pentagon plan, lawmakers have shown little interest in stopping the workplace changes, which were authorized in legislation two years ago. Republicans have signaled that they may consider modifications, if unions can provide specific examples of rule changes that appear unfair or go further than Congress intended.

Pentagon officials, meanwhile, continue to move forward with their NSPS plan. They appear on track to publish a final regulation by the end of August and launch the first wave of changes in October.

The officials also say they are open to feedback on their plan. Yesterday, Gordon England , the acting deputy defense secretary, and Linda M. Springer , director of the Office of Personnel Management, met with Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, to discuss the NSPS and other issues, congressional aides said.

John Gage , president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said yesterday that he thinks union members and federal employees have only started to grasp that the Pentagon plan would give more discretion to management and that his union has no choice but to keep pushing against the NSPS. Federal unions, including AFGE, have filed a lawsuit to stop parts of the NSPS.

The rally was sponsored by the coalition of Defense unions and included other labor organizations, such as the federal employee council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Among the speakers were Reps. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) and James R. Langevin (D-R.I.); Richard L. Trumka , the AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer; Ronald E. Ault , president of the Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO; Gregory J. Junemann , president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers; and several AFGE officials, including Gage.

"You have done a great job for this nation," Jones told the union members. "NSPS will not work. It is not fair to you."

Hoyer and other speakers said the NSPS could be a return to the days of political patronage in government, when civil service employees got raises and promotions based on who they knew rather than their knowledge and skills. Pay raises, Hoyer said, should be based "on merit and not on whim."

Rally organizers had predicted a large turnout, but estimates by participants ranged from fewer than 200 to about 400. Some union members said they had trouble guessing the size of the crowd because numerous union members gathered under trees to avoid the sun and either arrived late or left early because of the heat.

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