The Department of Homeland Security faces an Aug. 1 deadline to start up a new labor-management relations system. That's not in dispute. But almost everything else involving the new system continues to be hotly debated, as it has been for the past three years.

That was the case yesterday at a brown-bag lunch sponsored by the D.C. Bar's section on labor and employment law. A small crowd of labor lawyers, federal officials and union representatives gathered to chew over a regulation that expands management rights and reduces union bargaining rights.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the department views the changes as essential to ensuring rapid deployment of personnel -- such as Border Patrol agents and customs inspectors -- without getting snagged on labor contracts that stipulate cumbersome procedures for such assignments or that sway managerial judgment.

Federal unions see the effort as an attempt to gut their right to collective bargaining and to roll back their clout in government workplaces.

Yesterday, Catherine C. Mitrano, senior counsel to the Homeland Security general counsel, said the system will expand management rights and reduce the number of issues that can be put on the table for negotiation. Rather than bargain key issues, she said, the system calls on management and labor to "confer" about workplace changes.

The department will create an internal labor board to resolve disputes between management and unions, rather than take them to the Federal Labor Relations Authority, an independent agency. Even though the department will control who is appointed to the internal board, Mitrano pointed to inspectors general, who are selected by the White House and can challenge management decisions, as an example of why she thinks the internal labor board can operate in an independent manner.

Larry Adkins, deputy general counsel at the National Treasury Employees Union, and Sarah J. Starrett, a lawyer for the American Federation of Government Employees, said the changes will lower morale and possibly make it more difficult for the department to retain employees, including law enforcement officers.

For example, Adkins said, employees will no longer be able to rely on unions to negotiate procedures for staffing around-the-clock operations and, as a result, will have no say in which shift they work. The department also will not have to bargain with unions over how to determine "an objective way to send people against their wishes" to locations far from their families, he said.

Under the regulation, unions cannot bargain over procedures related to agency operations (such as overtime and use of technology). The department also can issue department-wide directives that can void an agreement or arrangement, Adkins said.

The rules, as a whole, Adkins said, do not ensure the right to collective bargaining and go against federal labor law.

The debate over the new labor-management system, and whether the department exceeded the bounds in designing the system, will probably be settled in the courts. Federal unions have filed suit to stop the rules that overhaul labor relations and streamline employee appeals of disciplinary action. Similar changes planned at the Defense Department also have drawn a lawsuit from unions.

Talk Shows

Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.), chairman of the House federal workforce subcommittee, will be the guest on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com and WFED (1050 AM).

James Lockhart III, deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration, will be the guest on "The IBM Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

"Federal Workplace Charity Sets a Record" will be the topic on the Imagene B. Stewart call-in program at 8 a.m. Sunday on WOL radio (1450 AM).

Gary M. Shiffman, chief of staff at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, will be the guest on "Code Red!" at 6 a.m. Thursday on WMET radio (1160 AM).

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com