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A Parting Shot at Collective Bargaining Rights

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Now you see it, now you don't.

Like a magician waving a magic wand, President Bush brandished his presidential pen and made the collective bargaining rights of almost 1,000 federal workers simply disappear.

But like an Apollo Theater audience unhappy with an entertainer's routine, union leaders and their supporters in Congress are lashing Bush with a chorus of boos.

The latest Capitol Hill protest came yesterday from five senators -- Democrats Daniel K. Akaka (Hawaii), Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), Barbara A. Mikulski (Md.), Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) and Independent Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) -- who told Bush: "We strongly urge you to withdraw your recent Executive Order excluding thousands of federal employees from the Federal Labor-Management Relations Program and rescinding their collective bargaining rights."

In a letter to the big boss-in-chief, the senators dumped on the administration's view that bargaining rights for the affected workers cannot be applied, as the order said, "in a manner consistent with national security requirements and considerations."

The senators find that reasoning weak and hard to stomach.

"We reject the view that union membership undermines a worker's ability to effectively perform his or her job functions, particularly in regard to national security issues," the senators complained. "Unionized employees serve with great distinction in a range of national and homeland security positions."

The order targeted about 8,600 employees in the Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, Transportation and Treasury departments. But the only ones affected were nearly 1,000 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) staffers who were protected by collective bargaining agreements.

Bush's skill at making things disappear is so great that the union rights had been zapped for six days before the employees even knew about it. The executive order was issued on Nov. 26, but ATF didn't notify its workers until Dec. 2, the day after the White House issued a news release.

Colleen M. Kelley, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents ATF workers whose rights have vanished, said she found out about it from a reporter.

"It's pretty appalling to treat employees . . . that way," Kelley said. "To strip them of their collective bargaining rights and not even have the decency to tell them or their representatives, that kind of speaks volumes to the way this administration treats employees and has been treating employees for eight years."

The notion that bargaining rights suddenly are inconsistent with national security concerns begs for something more than the curt language in the order.

That's what House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who has a good bunch of federal workers in his suburban Maryland district, asked for in a Friday letter to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey.

"Why," he wants to know, "after more than 30 years of collective bargaining, the administration moved to rescind the collective bargaining rights of ATF employees whose duties and functions remain unchanged."

Another point: If the national security reasons really are so important, why didn't the administration raise them when it last negotiated with the union in April? "Not once did they ever raise a question," Kelley said.

For union leaders, it's more evidence of an administration that does not like unions.

"It is amazing to us," said Mark Roth, general counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees, "that seven years and 11-plus months into this administration, as the door is literally hitting the lame duck on the tail feathers of his rump, he has enough squawk in him to take one last parting shot at federal labor organizations with an anti-union executive order while the economy burns, two wars are ongoing and he is otherwise viewed generally as irrelevant."

The executive order can be found at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2008/12/20081201-7.html

Health Benefit Revisions

Health insurance companies for federal employees had until yesterday to submit revised proposals for non-emergency surgery benefits by out-of-network doctors to the Office of Personnel Management. OPM and the companies will discuss the changes and adjustments should be announced soon. OPM asked for the revisions following pressure from the House subcommittee on the federal workforce, postal service and the District of Columbia. After outraged federal employees complained, the panel held a hearing last week on a plan by Blue Cross/Blue Shield to change its fee structure for the benefit.

Employees also will be able to change their insurance selections through the end of January, even though open season officially ended yesterday.

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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