Judge blocks Bush on plan for unions

Ruling affects proposed workplace rules

February 28, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

In a third blow to President Bush's efforts to weaken federal workers' unions, a judge blocked yesterday several of the most contentious portions of the Defense Department's proposed workplace rules, arguing that they "eviscerated" the rights of 650,000 workers and represented "the antithesis of fairness."

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan's 77-page ruling is a setback in the campaign to run the government more like a private business. The case is being closely watched by workers at other federal agencies because the White House has said that it wants to extend similar rules to the entire federal work force.

The rules would make it easier for managers to fire civil servants, wrest control from unions and adjust pay to better match salaries in the private sector.

"I'm not surprised, but I am disappointed," said George Nesterczuk, a senior policy adviser at the Office of Personnel Management, who helped craft the rules.

Sullivan's ruling is likely to be appealed, but even if higher courts side with him, workers still cannot declare a complete victory. Although Sullivan argued that the Defense Department went too far in curtailing collective bargaining rights, he did not strike down the central feature of the rules - a new pay system.

Although managers often have sole discretion over workers' raises in the private sector, most federal workers receive an annual raise regardless of ratings on a simple annual performance review. Congress sets the increase.

The new Defense Department rules, called the National Security Personnel System, create a five-tier annual performance review and link those ratings to workers' raises. A poor review could result in no raise.

The new pay system makes employees assume "more risk" than the current "risk-free" pay scale, called the General Schedule, said Gregg Prillaman of the Department of Homeland Security, where another federal judge, Rosemary M. Collyer, blocked similar changes in August. The department has appealed that ruling.

Sullivan's ruling relied heavily on Collyer's position that agencies could not void contracts with their unions. If there is 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.

Sullivan also argued that the new rules made a worker's ability to challenge a manager's decision - a demotion, firing or reassignment, for example - too difficult. Sullivan sided with the Defense Department on two key issues: that the military had the right to create the new rules and followed the process Congress laid out, including adequate collaboration with unions.

Mary Lacey, who is managing the new rules at the Defense Department, said the agency plans to move forward with the "pay for performance" system for about 11,000 nonunion workers in April. The Department of Homeland Security plans to move about 20,000 workers under a similar in January, Prillaman said. Both agencies have argued that they need greater control over their work forces to respond nimbly to terrorism threats and natural disasters.

The current rules force commanders "to assign work to military personnel that should be done by civilians," Lacey said yesterday at a conference for federal workers at the Baltimore Convention Center.melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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