Contrary to the impression given in Steven Pearlstein's March 5 column ["When Workforces Collide," Business], the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is not opposed to objective, cost-based public-private competition for genuinely commercial work. AFGE is, however, opposed to giving work to contractors and corporate contributors without public-private competition, depriving federal employees of the opportunity to compete for new work and contractor work.

The Bush administration is forcing agencies to review for privatization, either with or without competition, at least 850,000 federal employee jobs. Yet contractors acquire and retain work without ever having to compete against federal employees -- and, more and more, without even having to compete against each other.

Furthermore, the Economic Policy Institute has determined that more than one in 10 federal contract workers earn less than the living wage. Most taxpayers would agree that the spread of poverty is not something for which federal dollars should be used.

In contrast to the flexible federal employee workforce, contractors lock federal agencies into binding legal arrangements. And because of absence of competition among contractors, federal agencies become saddled with long-term, sole-source arrangements with contractors who know that they have taxpayers at their mercy.

Finally, the civil service changes our union has opposed in recent years would undermine the principles of the merit system and would prohibit federal employees from exercising their constitutional right to join unions and seek representation through collective bargaining. We believe that getting a federal job should be a matter of what you know, not whom you know. So-called civil service reform that does away with merit hiring for federal jobs -- allowing political appointees and the managers who work directly for them unlimited discretion to arbitrarily hire, fire and set salaries -- is bad for government, bad for democracy and bad for taxpayers who care about accountability.

-- Bobby L. Harnage Sr.

The writer is national president

of the American Federation

of Government Employees.