Judge again blocks agency's new rules

Collective bargaining rights at stake

October 08, 2005|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

For the second time in less than two months, a federal judge in Washington has blocked parts of new workplace rules at the Department of Homeland Security because recent revisions still do not afford workers collective bargaining rights.

Yesterday's ruling capped months of wrangling in federal district court over President Bush's first attempts to overhaul the inner workings of the government and root out what critics say are laziness and inefficiency.

The case is a critical one for federal workers and their unions. The rules would make government hiring, firing and pay more similar to those of corporate America. Congress will weigh this year whether other federal agencies can replicate this system, and officials at the Department of Defense, the government's largest employer, are in the process of writing similar rules.

The changes would significantly reduce the influence of unions. They would make it easier to fire or demote someone. They would eliminate guaranteed raises. And they would require more rigorous performance evaluations than the current pass/fail system.

In building the Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress gave the president this wide leeway for the first time, but told him that he couldn't harm collective bargaining rights.

After chastising Homeland Security for doing so and offering the department a second chance to craft fairer rules, U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer said that the changes were not enough.

The DHS had left in a specific clause allowing managers "to take whatever other actions may be necessary to carry out the Department's mission," which she said allowed them to void existing agreements at any time. Officials already have the right to do so in emergencies.

"The Agencies fell back upon the familiar mantra that this degree of `flexibility' is needed to protect homeland security and combat terrorism," Collyer wrote. "It bears repeating, however, that the represented employees are not on the front line in combating terrorism and that the limited subjects available for bargaining do not include operational matters."

The ruling makes the future of these reforms even more uncertain. Collyer's first ruling delayed the start of pay-for-performance rules by one year at the Department of Homeland Security, and Pentagon officials are facing a looming deadline to publish their new rules in time to implement them in January.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said that she hopes the ruling will encourage officials to return to the bargaining table and include workers in revising plans.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said the agency has not decided whether to appeal.

"We believe that the American people and Congress intended for DHS to be a streamlined and nimble organization - protecting America while preserving fundamental freedoms and doing so without adding to the government bureaucracy," spokesman Larry Orluskie wrote in an e-mail yesterday.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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