The Federal Diary in the July 15 Metro section incorrectly said that U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer once served as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Agency. She was general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. (Published 7/20/2005)

In the two years that the Bush administration has been developing its plans to overhaul pay and personnel rules for the Department of Homeland Security, there has been almost no public debate on the role of the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

The FLRA, as it is known, is a small, independent agency, chaired by a presidential appointee, that is supposed to serve as a neutral judge in the settlement of disputes between unions and agencies.

But a cursory review of the record shows that the FLRA has not been a player in the development of new labor rules for the Department of Homeland Security. Bush administration officials talk of consulting the Merit Systems Protection Board, which rules on employee disciplinary cases, but not the FLRA. Congressional chairmen have not called anyone from the FLRA as a witness in hearings on the personnel overhaul at Homeland Security.

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer thrust the FLRA into the debate at a hearing on whether the court should delay the scheduled Aug. 1 launch of new labor-management rules at Homeland Security.

Her decision in the case could influence how other courts handle similar challenges. Unions have filed lawsuits to stop a Pentagon plan to change labor rules at the Defense Department and probably will go to court if the Bush administration moves forward with government-wide legislation that might modify parts of labor-management law.

The new rules for Homeland Security reduce the clout of unions by taking some issues off the bargaining table, such as arrangements for deploying employees and asking them to use different technology.

The rules also set up an internal labor board to rule in bargaining disputes. Under the rules, unions can appeal some Homeland Security board rulings to the FLRA, but the FLRA must defer to findings of fact and interpretations made by the board. The rules also leave some matters, such as union elections, to the FLRA.

Federal unions, led by the National Treasury Employees Union, contended yesterday before Collyer that the new labor rules essentially gut collective bargaining rights. Robert Shriver, an NTEU attorney, said the rules include an escape clause for the department, allowing it to issue directives that void existing agreements.

Collyer asked NTEU and Justice Department attorneys where the regulations give Homeland Security the right to subtract or expand the jurisdiction of the FLRA, change standards of review for the FLRA and set its workload priorities.

At one point, the judge said she was "honestly, really concerned about whether the secretary has overstepped" with some parts of the regulations.

In particular, Collyer suggested that the Homeland Security rules appear to throw into doubt a key part of collective bargaining -- a contract that binds all parties.

Joseph W. Lobue, a senior trial counsel for the Justice Department, defended the new rules. He stressed that Congress in 2002 authorized the overhaul of labor-management practices so that agency managers can more quickly respond to terrorist threats. Lobue said that Homeland Security "cannot willy-nilly overturn collective bargaining agreements" and that the new rules are not as sweeping as portrayed by NTEU.

The judge, who was appointed to the court in 1993 and once served as general counsel at the National Labor Relations Authority, conducted a lively hearing, challenging the lawyers on arcane points of the labor rules. At one point, she described the rules as written in a "loosey-goosey" manner and urged the government to jettison the jargon of "human capital management" when talking about employees.

She closed by asking Lobue to determine whether the government could wait until Aug. 15 to launch the labor system, saying she would prefer to focus on the merits of the case rather than make a rush decision on whether to issue a temporary injunction. Lobue said the government would respond today.

Talk Shows

Dexter Brooks, acting director of federal programs at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, will be the guest on "FED talk" at 11 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com and WFED Radio (1050 AM).

Bert DuMars, director of electronic tax administration at the Internal Revenue Service, will be the guest on "The IBM Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK Radio (106.7 FM).

"Diversity" will be the topic of discussion on the Imagene B. Stewart call-in program at 8 a.m. Sunday on WOL Radio (1450 AM).

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com