washingtonpost.com
Unions Seek to Meet Chertoff on DHS Plan
Labor Wants to Rework New System

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Leaders of federal employee unions yesterday called on Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to meet with them and discuss revamping the department's new personnel system, parts of which were ruled illegal by a federal judge last week.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer faulted the new system for undermining employees' rights to collective bargaining, and she blocked the department from implementing new rules governing labor relations and employee appeals.

There was no word from Chertoff yesterday, but spokesman Larry Orluskie said the department was weighing its options and reviewing the judge's 57-page decision. The ruling delays indefinitely the move to the new personnel system, parts of which had been scheduled to take effect yesterday, and it complicates the White House's push for similar civil service changes government-wide.

The decision does not, however, affect the parts of the system that have garnered the most attention from rank-and-file employees: the department's plans to replace the 15-grade General Schedule pay system with one of broad salary ranges known as pay bands, and to more strongly tie annual raises to performance evaluations.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which led a group of five unions that sued DHS, said the court validated contentions that the administration had "abused the discretion" that Congress gave it in 2002 when lawmakers authorized the rewriting of personnel rules for the newly created DHS, a consolidation of 22 agencies.

"We're asking that they reconsider this entire sham," Kelley said. "The system is not fair, it is not credible and it is not transparent. . . . From the very earliest drafts, it was clear that this system was nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to severely restrict employee rights and to concentrate power in the hands of the managers. . . . NTEU and the employees at the DHS need to be involved in the development of this system."

The new personnel system is the product of more than two years of work. It is expected to dramatically change the way many of the department's 180,000 workers are paid, promoted, deployed and disciplined. A similar system being developed at the Defense Department would affect 746,000 workers and also has been challenged in a separate lawsuit filed by labor unions.

Bush administration officials have argued that such changes are necessary to make the federal bureaucracy more nimble and responsive in the fight against terrorism and, more generally, to improve government efficiency. Unions have said the new systems gut employee rights and morale and, in some areas, go beyond existing law.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, another union involved in both lawsuits, said Congress should step in and curtail the administration's authority to make widespread changes in workplace rules. "Neither DHS nor DOD at this point deserves the benefit of the doubt that Congress gave to them," Gage said.

In her ruling, Collyer found that Homeland Security's new personnel system falls short of guaranteeing collective bargaining rights because the department can override any provision in a labor agreement simply by issuing a department-wide directive. She faulted the department's plan to limit the ability of the independent Merit Systems Protection Board to mitigate punishment handed out to employees who have successfully appealed firings and demotions to the board. And she ruled that the plan would go too far in altering the role of the independent Federal Labor Relations Authority, many of whose duties would be taken over by an internal labor relations board.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), a member of the House Government Reform Committee, said in a statement that the department had "redefined collective bargaining out of existence" and should now review and rewrite the whole proposed system.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Homeland Security, expressed similar sentiments. "They cannot set up a system -- in the name of homeland or national security -- that runs roughshod over workers' rights to representation and collective bargaining," he said.

There was no indication that the ruling had altered plans to implement the new National Security Personnel System at the Pentagon later this year, however. "We are currently in the process of finalizing our regulations," said Joyce K. Frank, a Pentagon spokeswoman. "We will go forward with completing that process and our plans to implement NSPS later this year."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company