Two union leaders told their members yesterday that the Department of Homeland Security walked out of talks on new rules that will change how 110,000 of the department's employees are paid, promoted and disciplined.
The department disputed that characterization and said the talks will soon move to the next level -- a meeting at which Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Kay Coles James, director of the Office of Personnel Management, will be present.
The apparent breakdown between the unions and the Bush administration underscores the tensions in play as the department prepares for one of the largest changes to the civil service system in recent decades. Civil service experts say it could be a model for remaking rules at the Defense Department and other agencies.
Both sides agreed yesterday that they have made some progress in their talks.
Union representatives said they wanted to keep talking and get agreements in writing but the department did not get back to them after the last session ended Aug. 6. The unions said administration officials have signaled they want to publish final regulations in September so that they can launch the new system next year.
"Do they want to do it right, or do they want to do it fast?" asked Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.
Brian DeWyngaert, executive assistant to the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said: "It is pretty clear that they had a schedule that they intended to keep. In our minds, that is an arbitrary schedule."
He added: "Clearly, the work was not finished. This is a massive undertaking. The regulations are extremely long, covering a huge area of topics. Very complex. And to try and rush through those and leave a lot of things undone . . . is not the way to do business."
In a letter to union members, Kelley and John Gage, the AFGE president, wrote: "Progress was being made in these talks until DHS management unexpectedly and inexplicably walked out. DHS management is refusing to come back to the table and finish the discussions."
Melissa Allen, senior human resources adviser at the department, said, "When we concluded discussions in early August after 40 days, DHS and OPM suggested that those discussions should move to the next level -- a meeting between the secretary, the director of OPM and union leadership."
Allen said agreement had been reached in the staff-level talks "on concepts and principles which responded to concerns raised by DHS employees and their representatives."
But Kelley said she found out the current round of talks had been suspended only after making a telephone call to a senior Homeland Security official and to a mediator who was serving as a referee. She was left with the impression, she said, that "there is nothing more to talk about."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the Government Reform Committee, thinks it would not hurt to extend the staff-level talks, his spokesman, David Marin, said.
"He's urging all of the parties to return to the table and finish this important work," Marin said. The credibility of the new workplace rules hinge, in part, on assuring Homeland Security workers that they were developed through a collaborative process, he said.
"At the very least, employees need to know their representatives had ample opportunity to voice their concerns," he said. "Premature cessation of negotiations threatens employee buy-in down the road."