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Court Battle Continues Over Defense Union's Bargaining Rights

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, January 10, 2008

Just as it appeared the Ping-Pong battle between the Defense Department and its largest union was ending, the union has stepped up to the table for one last serve.

The American Federation of Government Employees this week filed an appeal with the Supreme Court to stop a Bush administration effort to curb union rights in the department. The appeal marks the latest bounce in a legal case that began five years ago.

Only a few weeks ago, the dispute seemed settled. Congress, as part of the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill, rejected the Pentagon's plan to weaken unions. The bill would place Defense labor relations and employee appeals back under regular civil service law, and unions would be able to continue negotiating binding contracts on the same scope of workplace issues as elsewhere in government.

But President Bush used a pocket veto to stop the bill over an entirely different issue -- a provision that officials said could leave Iraq's government and assets vulnerable to lawsuits from victims of Saddam Hussein. The union had hoped that Bush would sign the defense bill before Jan. 7, the union's deadline for filing a petition to the Supreme Court.

With the bill stalled, AFGE decided to put its legal case back in play. AFGE is contesting a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals last May that went in favor of the Pentagon. That ruling ended a string of union victories in court over the Bush administration's plan to restrict bargaining rights at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

AFGE, in the petition, contends that the appeals court ruling "is in conflict" with another federal court decision in a similar case involving Homeland Security. Federal judges did not permit that department to severely curtail union rights, AFGE said, while a separate, three-judge appeals court panel, by 2 to 1, said the Defense Department could go ahead with its plan to curtail union rights.

The court fight grew out of workplace rules adopted by the Bush administration as part of the new National Security Personnel System being phased in and currently covers about 130,000 nonunion civilians at Defense. Bush officials have backed the new personnel system, which includes performance-based pay, as a way to reward the best workers and more efficiently address workplace issues.

But labor leaders, especially in the past year, have lobbied key Democratic representatives and senators to repeal the workplace rules, which were authorized in 2003 when Republicans controlled Congress.

House and Senate negotiators came up with a compromise -- restoring union rights but allowing the Pentagon to link part of the annual employee pay raise to job performance.

The White House has not objected to the compromise, suggesting that it will remain in the next version of the defense authorization bill Congress sends Bush. Legislation may remain the union's best chance of reversing the Pentagon workplace rules because the Supreme Court takes up a fraction of petitions filed every year.

Retirements

Naomi Bryant, directives management officer with the Federal Aviation Administration's Aircraft Certification Service, retired Jan. 3 after 38 years of federal service. She worked to improve electronic access to FAA regulatory policy and records.

Yvette M. Curseen, an administrative assistant at the National Park Service, retired Jan. 3 after 37 years of federal service.

Butch Hinton, the principal senior executive for national security issues at the Government Accountability Office, retired Jan. 3 after 38 years at the GAO. He received the Comptroller General's Award, the agency's highest honor, twice during his career.

Jim Kearns, chief of staff for the chief information officer at the General Services Administration, retired Jan. 3 after 42 years working in environmental and technology management positions at the Navy, Marine Corps and the GSA.

Anthony A. Ren┬┐, assistant director for referral and liaison at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health, retired Jan. 3 after 50 years of federal service. He oversaw programs that offered internships, training and research support for high school, college, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Larry I. Schwartz, patent telework program manager at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, retired Jan. 3 with more than 35 years of federal service. He served as a patent examiner, patent examiner manager and most recently managed the telework program.

Jeff Steinhoff, a GAO executive responsible for oversight of financial management and auditing issues across the government, retired Jan. 3 after 35 years at the GAO. The recipient of many awards, he played a key role in the development of the 1990 Chief Financial Officers Act.

Rick Zabel, senior retirement and employee benefits counselor for the Senate, retired Dec. 15 after 31 years of government service.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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