Homeland Security officials submit revised labor plan

Proposal relents on issues rejected by federal judge

August 28, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

Department of Homeland Security officials have released plans that would guarantee their employees binding labor contracts and salvage new workplace rules after a judge blocked them this month.

The case is a critical one for federal workers and their unions. The rules make government hiring, firing and pay more similar to corporate America's; Congress will weigh this year whether other federal agencies can replicate this system.

The rules also significantly reduce the influence of federal unions, whose membership is strong but whose powers have waned over time.

The White House has argued that it needs to be able to sidestep unions to better fight terrorists.

On Aug. 12, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer stripped unions of the right to bargain over many issues, but also denied management the right to issue policies -- or "directives" -- that override labor contracts. She told Homeland Security that if it promises employees something, it must stick to its word.

The plan that federal officials submitted to Collyer on Friday night removed wording that allowed them to break a contract. And in declining to file an appeal at this point, Homeland Security also accepted that it can't block an independent panel from reducing an employee's punishment, such as a suspension or demotion.

Federal unions, however, are not satisfied. Labor leaders had hoped that the judge's ban would have forced officials back to the bargaining table, where the unions could seek greater concessions.

"The entire DHS personnel system is in need of a fresh look," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

Ward Morrow, an attorney for the American Federation of Government Employees, said that deleting parts of the workplace rules amounted to changing them, and by law, changes must undergo a "meet and confer" period with unions.

"Had they consulted with us, that would have been OK," Morrow said.

Once unions finish reviewing the plan, they likely will object to another aspect.

The judge found that the workplace rules unfairly altered the powers of another independent agency's powers, which handles union-agency disputes. Rather than restore those powers, Homeland Security's plan takes the Federal Labor Relations Authority out of the process. Unions would still be able to take disputes to court.

"We had wanted an independent agency to review these issues before having to go to court," Morrow said.

The two unions said that they will oppose Homeland Security's proposal. The agency has asked the judge for a reply before Oct. 7. If it is unsatisfied with her response, it can still appeal.

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