Almost anytime there's a discussion of the Bush administration's regulation to revamp workplace rules at the Defense Department, one expert or another will pronounce that "the devil is in the details," the cliche that signals no judgment can be made until more information becomes available.

But John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, got a glimpse of what he believes is a regulatory devil: a new Pentagon proposal that would give unions 20 days to challenge Defense managers who void contracts or contract provisions because they are deemed in conflict with the regulation creating the new National Security Personnel System.

Gage, in a telephone interview last week, called the proposed 20-day time limit "a bum's rush" and "unfair." He added: "They are busting the unions with this. Collective bargaining will mean nothing."

The union president's frustration flared earlier in the month, at a hearing in the Senate attended by Sens. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), John W. Warner (R-Va.), Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and others.

"This is a setup," Gage testified Nov. 17. "Our people are extremely concerned about this. There is no way for us to provide representation to our members in such a scheme."

Brad Bunn, deputy program executive officer for the NSPS, said the 20-day proposal "is up in the air" and should not be seen as a time limit on the transition to new labor-management rules.

"Our interest is to make the transition as orderly and smoothly as possible," Bunn said. "We are not trying to do a 'gotcha.' It is not in the interests of the department . . . to have chaos when we implement. . . ."

The new labor rules at Defense, which had been tentatively scheduled to kick in around Dec. 1, will not take effect until February under an agreement reached between unions and the department. A lawsuit filed by a coalition of unions could push back the start date even further.

Since 1978, the government's labor-management system has been defined in civil service law and interpreted by the Federal Labor Relations Authority, an independent agency that rules in disputes between agencies and unions. Most federal unions cannot bargain over pay and benefits; federal employees are not allowed to strike.

With such big-ticket items off the bargaining tables, unions have focused on "impact and implementation" of agency decisions. They have negotiated over the procedures for employee assignments and deployments, the use of technology and other workplace issues, such as flexible work schedules.

The NSPS shifts the Defense Department from the statutory system -- which officials have faulted as too slow and insensitive to military needs -- to one created by regulation and internal directives. NSPS has been designed to take issues off the bargaining table, especially negotiations over issues linked to operations, such as overtime and work assignments.

When the NSPS regulation goes into effect, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will trigger the start of the department's new labor rules. He will name at least three members to an internal labor board, which will rule in union-management disputes. The members will probably be current department officials or people who once served in the department.

The NSPS regulation will override union contracts, allowing Defense officials at local bases to notify unions that certain contract provisions "are unenforceable," Bunn said.

At that point, local unions can file a challenge to the Defense labor board and argue that the provisions should continue to be topics for negotiation. The NSPS regulation also gives unions and management 60 days to rewrite contracts to conform to the new workplace rules. Dropping a provision from the contract, for example, could call into question the wording of other contract provisions.

Defense has entered into about 1,500 contracts with unions, and every contract is different, raising the prospect that the board might face a backlog of disputes within days of its creation. Bunn said the Pentagon is working on plans to hire professional staff for the board. Unions may appeal board decisions to the FLRA and to federal courts.

The department, Bunn said, wants to avoid "dragging out issues of contention for a long time" with unions -- a consideration in proposing a 20-day deadline to void contract provisions and a 60-day period for modifying related provisions.

Defense, he said, "would like the transition work to be as quick as possible . . . but we are not going to be unreasonable about that."

Gage, however, contends that the Pentagon is trying to attack collective bargaining rights. He noted that AFGE, which represents 200,000 Defense employees, operates in 357 locations and will find it almost impossible to dispute management decisions if confronted with a quick deadline.

"We will not be able to argue and protect valid contract provisions because of the way they have structured the appeals process and the burden they have put on unions," Gage said.

A federal judge has set Jan. 24 to hear the union's arguments against the NSPS labor rules. So, in keeping with another cliche, stay tuned.

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