U.S. weighs setback in bid to change work rules

Workers' rights undermined by Homeland Security effort, federal district judge finds

August 16, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

In a closely watched case that could redefine the role of labor unions in the federal work force, the Department of Homeland Security is weighing whether to appeal a judge's ruling that the agency unfairly undermined workers' rights in the name of fighting terrorism.

The weekend ruling from U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer is the first setback for President Bush's efforts to make it easier to fire civil servants, wrestcontrol from unions and adjust pay to better match the private sector.

DHS and its 160,000 employees are considered test cases for these changes. The new workplace rules were set to take effect yesterday.

If Collyer's ruling stands, it's not a complete victory for workers. Unions would still lose control over a myriad of issues, including overtime, project assignments and tours of duty overseas. But she also bound DHS to its labor agreements.

"DHS is going to have to do more than listen to us," said Ward Morrow, an attorney for the American Federation of Government Employees, which is considering an appeal of its own. "They're going to have to give us a contract with meaning."

The White House had argued that the agency and the Department of Defense needed broad authority to fire, hire and rearrange its workers to respond to terrorism threats. While building the Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Congress did so with the caveat that unions still had the right to collective bargaining.

Collyer ruled that allowing the agency to opt out of parts of labor contracts whenever it wanted to - an escape clause, of sorts - wasn't collective bargaining.

If there's no way to hold the agency to its word, "a deal is not a deal, a contract is not a contract and the process of collective bargaining is a nullity," Collyer wrote.

The case is an important one for organized labor, which is suffering from declining membership, and the Department of Defense, whose own workplace rules are scheduled to be revamped this year. Congress also could consider legislation this fall that would spread the reforms at DHS to the rest of the civil service.

Larry Orluskie, a spokesman for the agency, said that attorneys are reviewing Collyer's ruling and "considering the next steps." A decision on an appeal could be reached this week.

The unions hope that officials at the Pentagon and DHS will return to the bargaining table and that Congress will shelve legislation that would change the system everywhere else, called the Working for America Act.

"I hope this scuttles it completely," said John Gage, president of AFGE. "It's the most ill-thought-out, repressive piece of legislation I've ever seen. They want to intimidate employees, wipe out unions and depress overall pay."

One former high-ranking official at the National Security Agency said that such changes would likely spawn a meaner federal government.

"It was difficult to fire people," said Bill Ferguson, who is now president of a chapter of retired federal workers in Laurel. "But interestingly enough, it wasn't because of the way the regulations were written. It was because everybody wanted to be a nice person."

Ferguson said that he would often listen to managers complain about workers whom they had recently rewarded with high performance ratings or bonuses. Once a paper trail had been established, the firing or demotion process was relatively straightforward, he said.

But economists also are watching whether these changes will impact Maryland's labor market. The federal government is the state's No. 1 employer, and one which is known for its low turnover and excellent health benefits, retirement plans and pay.

Officials hope that a dramatic overhaul in the federal pay system would undo an office culture that places little emphasis on evaluation and bases raises largely on longevity, rather than performance.

Collyer's ruling does nothing to harm the president's pay-for-performance agenda, and it is possible that DHS would move forward with a new pay system while attorneys continue to fight in court over unions' role and workers' rights to an appeal if they're fired or punished.

Even if federal unions retain collective bargaining rights, the loss of so much control and reliable pay increases would be a major blow - one that unions have already experienced in the private sector because of pressures to ship jobs overseas and squeeze out profits.

Sun staff writer William Wan contributed to this article.

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