DHS Withdraws Bid to Curb Union Rights

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A lengthy fight, in the courts and on Capitol Hill, has come to an end.

The Department of Homeland Security, in a court filing Friday, said it will not pursue rules to curb union rights and will abide by regular civil service labor-management procedures.

Shortly afterward, a federal court issued an order closing the case, and the union that fought the rules declared victory.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, yesterday called the result "a welcome end to a battle well worth fighting."

The battle began in the summer of 2002, when the Bush administration signaled that it wanted to create a separate personnel system for Homeland Security, changing how employees would be paid, promoted and disciplined.

Bush officials contended that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks required changes that would give more discretion to managers and permit quicker deployment of workers without notifying their union representatives.

The plan outraged federal union leaders and a number of Democrats in Congress. When the department and the Office of Personnel Management issued rules for a new personnel system in February 2005, the NTEU and other employee groups sued. The union also began lobbying campaigns to stop the rules on Capitol Hill.

The proposed rules would have allowed the Department of Homeland Security to override any provision in a union contract by issuing a department-wide directive. The rules also would have made it difficult, if not impossible, for unions to negotiate over arrangements for staffing, deployments, technology and other workplace matters.

In August 2005, U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer blocked the department's plan, saying it did not ensure collective-bargaining rights for Homeland Security employees. A year later, a federal appeals court ruled against the department.

Congress also had a hand in forcing the department to throw in the towel. The fiscal 2008 appropriations bill for the Homeland Security Department provided no funding for a new personnel system, pending resolution of the litigation. The Bush administration is in its last year in office, making it difficult for the department to push back on the issue.

Asked yesterday about the court filing, Larry Orluskie, a Homeland Security spokesman, said, "This decision permits the department to focus on implementing its human resources management system rather than spend additional time in litigation."

Last year, department officials said they wanted to focus on establishing a new performance management system. Employees will be rated on four levels: unacceptable, achieved expectations, exceeded expectations and achieved excellence. In particular, officials hope the rating system will provide a way for managers to better identify poor-performing workers and help them do a better job or, as a last resort, force them to leave.

Officials have not signaled that they want to link the job ratings to salary decisions, a step that has been taken by the Defense Department through its new National Security Personnel System.

Kelley, the union president, said yesterday that she will continue to oppose any personnel system changes, including new job ratings, under consideration by the department. If the department decides to make any changes, they will be subject to the completion of bargaining and to any funding restrictions, she said.

A Silver Lining at the TSP

Last month, as stock prices dropped, the lifecycle funds at the Thrift Savings Plan did better than the TSP's big equity funds, officials told the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board yesterday.

While all TSP stock funds lost money in January, the lifecycle funds, which are geared to retirement dates, did not fall as much.

The 2040 lifecycle fund, for instance, lost 5.37 percent, but that decline in value was smaller than for the TSP's international stock fund (down 8.52 percent), small company fund (down 6.27 percent) and large company fund (down 5.98 percent).

Andrew M. Saul, the board chairman, called the January returns "bad losses" for the program but said the lifecycle funds, which were added to the Thrift Savings Plan in 2005, showed the value of a diversified portfolio. The TSP's lifecycle funds were not far off the performance of Wall Street's complex hedge funds, which were down about 3 percent, on average, he said.

The board also heard from Labor Department auditors, who urged the TSP to step up efforts to protect information in laptops and other portable computer devices. TSP officials accepted the recommendations and noted that software had been installed to permit remote destruction of data if a laptop is lost or stolen.

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