Talks between federal employee unions and the Bush administration over the development of a new personnel system for the Defense Department appeared to be on the verge of breaking down this week, two weeks after similar discussions stalled at the Department of Homeland Security.
Leaders of a coalition of three dozen unions say officials from the Pentagon and the Office of Personnel Management have refused to provide details of their plans or give serious consideration to ideas and questions from the unions. Congress paved the way for a new system last year when it gave Pentagon officials the authority to rewrite personnel rules affecting nearly 750,000 civilian employees. Defense is expected to release a detailed proposal by the end of the year and to begin implementing the new system in late 2005.
"We're just talking to people who are sitting there. I don't know if they are listening," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union. ". . . Our people are very frustrated because we're ready to provide meaningful input and to really see if we can get a personnel system that both sides can live with."
Gage and other union leaders are scheduled to discuss their complaints today in a news conference at the Capital Hilton. The session comes less than two weeks after Gage and another prominent union leader told their members that Homeland Security officials had walked out of talks on new personnel rules at that department.
Pentagon officials said they believe the development of the National Security Personnel System is going well but there are no details yet, only concepts. Employees have provided feedback through town hall meetings, an interactive Web site and meetings between top officials and union leaders, they said.
"The union session we held last week met our goals and expectations," Lt. Col. Joseph Richard, a DOD spokesman, wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. "We had meaningful dialogue, talked about substance, shared concerns and exchanged ideas that will guide us as we continue to explore options."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said that managers need more freedom over how workers are paid, promoted, deployed and disciplined to better fight the war on terrorism. The administration won similar authority to rewrite personnel rules as part of legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. The final systems in both departments could serve as templates for civil service changes across the government, experts say.
While the unions have little power to block such changes, Congress has made it clear that employees and their representatives should have a collaborative role in shaping the new personnel systems.
In February, Pentagon officials issued a 13-page memo outlining labor relations "concepts" that union leaders said would end meaningful collective bargaining over work rules and eliminate third-party review of labor disputes. Not long afterward, Rumsfeld named Navy Secretary Gordon R. England to oversee development of the system at a slower pace.
The two sides have met four times since June, including twice last week. Another meeting is set for Sept. 10.
Administration officials distributed a 12-page outline last week of management's concerns with the current labor relations and employee appeals systems, as well as options for change. The document suggests limiting union rights to bargain over workplace policy changes to matters that have a "significant impact" on employees, and then only after the changes have been implemented. Bargaining can take months under the current system, and changes can be implemented only when talks are complete, the document says.
In response, the unions submitted a 10-page document challenging officials' right to make many of the changes and asking management to provide specific examples of how the current system has hurt national security.
Greg Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said union officials agree the current system has flaws. But Pentagon and OPM officials are not willing to make good-faith efforts to reach a compromise, he said.
"The reason they are meeting with us right now is because Congress told them to," he said.
R. Thomas Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said: "It's becoming more and more transparent by the day that it is a form of union-busting. . . . There's another agenda operating behind the warm and fuzzy facade that's out there. And that agenda is the one that's going to cut the legs out from under the civil service system."