After three years of playing defense against Bush administration attempts to outsource federal jobs and rewrite civil service rules, federal union activists see this week as their opportunity to go on the offensive.

Dozens of union members will flock to the Democratic National Convention, which starts tomorrow in Boston, to do what they can to defeat President Bush and elect Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who will accept his party's nomination on Thursday.

"I am going because I'm upset with the attacks that this administration has made on unions and federal workers," said Arnold Scott, a 10-year union official.

Scott left his home in Indianapolis this weekend for Boston and his first presidential nominating convention. He is a vice president at the American Federation of Government Employees and represents about 4,000 AFGE members in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. He served in the Navy for four years and has 16 years in the civil service as an industrial equipment mechanic.

"I expect to be in Ohio a lot, and I expect to win Ohio, too," Scott said. "We've got people on the ground working. . . . We expect to pull some surprises."

Ohio is one of a dozen states where federal unions are sending staff members and volunteers in a bid to increase Election Day turnout by union households and elect Kerry.

"We have a list of 5,000 rank-and-file employees who have stood up and said, 'I want to do something,' " said John Gage, AFGE president. "I think this election will be won on the ground."

Maureen Gilman, legislative director of the National Treasury Employees Union, said the union has signed up 1,300 members for election work, more than in previous election years.

NTEU member Diane Wood of Hopkinsville, Ky., a 13-year federal employee, headed for Boston to serve on the credentials committee. "Our chapter and all of us who are federal employees are interested more than usual in this campaign," she said.

Major federal employee unions, such as AFGE, NTEU and the National Association of Letter Carriers, have endorsed Kerry for president. The endorsements were based on Kerry's voting record and the candidate's support for worker rights.

Robert Gordon, a domestic policy adviser with the Kerry campaign, said Kerry believes that showing respect for employees is important "to making government work as efficiently as possible."

According to union officials, the majority of their members oppose Bush because he has advocated policies they say could lead to smaller pay raises, more federal jobs turned over to the private sector and an erosion of collective bargaining rights.

Labor's opposition, of course, is not a surprise. Relations between unions and Bush were rocky from the start.

Bush revoked President Bill Clinton's executive order calling on agencies and unions to work in partnership. He also issued an executive order that kicked unions out of some parts of the Justice Department, including U.S. attorneys' offices.

The administration, citing national security, has banned unions at the Transportation Security Administration. It also is developing personnel rules that will probably scale back the role of unions in the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

Bush administration officials deny they have engaged in union-busting tactics. Because of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the government needs to streamline its labor relations so that agencies can more quickly respond to threats, officials have said. "The current principles that we all live by, a merit system, protections and everything, is all still there," Navy Secretary Gordon England told Defense employees July 7. The administration is committed to employee safeguards against cronyism and bias in the civil service, Kay Coles James, director of the Office of Personnel Management, has assured Congress.

But union leaders clearly have a different view. The administration "is attempting to destroy the civil service through phony personnel reforms," said Carl Goldman, executive director of Council 26 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The unions also do not seem bothered that their Kerry endorsements could backfire if Bush wins a second term.

Bush "has a very clear record on what he wants to do with regard to federal employees, and I think our members recognize that is something they don't want to see continue," Gilman said.

Scott said, "We have been on the front line, being attacked by this administration ever since they came in. I don't see how it can get any worse."

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com