With Obama, Unions See Chance to Push Agenda

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, November 20, 2008

What a difference a transition makes.

Federal employees are looking forward to what they believe will be the biggest change under Barack Obama: a boss-in-chief who likes them more than their current one.

The National Treasury Employees Union wants to cash in on that goodwill and the union's support of President-elect Obama by setting right a series of setbacks dealt to organized federal labor by the Bush administration.

Don't be fooled by the union's name. It's one of the largest federal labor organizations and carries clout far beyond the Treasury building. The union reaches into 31 agencies across the federal government and claims to represent (not to be confused with membership) 150,000 workers.

"President-elect Obama has made it clear he believes government is a positive force for changing people's lives, and he sees federal employees as the biggest asset the federal government has," union President Colleen M. Kelley told reporters yesterday. "They need to be supported and valued and respected, and that's just something that has been missing for eight years."

Kelley isn't relying on lofty rhetoric. To help move Obama's good thoughts to concrete action, she outlined a broad set of administrative and legislative recommendations to his transition team that would boost labor's power with the government, while, she said, "significantly improving the delivery of government services to the American people."

Topping her list is granting Transportation Security Administration employees collective bargaining rights. That also ranked No. 1 with John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the other big union, when he briefed reporters the day after Obama's victory.

Kelley also wants Obama to issue an executive order reestablishing the labor-management partnership that President Clinton created. Local labor-management councils identified problems and trained management and union representatives in dispute resolution. A National Partnership Council oversaw the program, which had mixed results. Labor liked the idea, but the Bush administration killed it.

High on federal employees' enemy list is the hiring of outside contractors to do work they feel should be done by those on Uncle Sam's payroll. The union wants all federal agencies to review their contracts and cancel those that involve inherently governmental activities, such as collecting taxes.

Kelley insisted her union's recommendations are not a wish list, but a "framework, as we see it, for a very serious discussion about how to turn this ship around and head in a new direction and a positive direction."

That framework includes recommendations listed by agency. They cover things large and small. One that means nothing to most people outside of government is "dismiss all current Federal Service Impasses Panel members and chair."

Besides Kelley, almost no one has even heard of that panel or gives a hoot about its members. (The panel resolves complaints of unfair labor practices, but has a reputation for being anti-labor under Bush.)

While the impasse panel could be on Mars for most people, farming out tax collections to private companies is something that should concern everyone. If there's one agency Americans expect to keep their business confidential, it's the Internal Revenue Service. Hiring private collection agencies to hound people and get commissions for doing so carries the potential of violating taxpayer privacy. Not only that, but even the IRS acknowledges it might cost those same taxpayers less to have government workers harass scofflaws.

The union's recommendations can be found at http://www.nteu.org.

Transition Delays

While union leaders are looking forward to the new big boss, high-level civil servants are wondering about a transition that will bring in a new set of political appointees to implement his policies.

The National Academy of Public Administration explored the views of the Senior Executive Service, those top-level civil servants, in a survey planned for release today.

When asked to pick the greatest potential problem for slowing the transition, delays in Senate confirmation of political bosses got the greatest portion of hits, almost 42 percent.

But despite the history of recent transitions, maybe this one won't be so bad when it comes to confirmations.

"The Obama team is really moving forward with deliberate speed," said Jennifer L. Dorn, the Academy's president.

"Distrust" took second place.

That's a fascinating category that likely will be explored during the Academy's fall meeting, at 8:45 a.m. today at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel.

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com

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