White House discusses new agency with federal union leaders

White House officials met with the leaders of the two largest federal employee unions on Friday to talk about how the proposed creation of the Department of Homeland Security would affect federal workers.

The union leaders said that the White House didn't offer any new information about the proposal, leaving the union representatives-and federal workers-wondering how the plan would affect the pay, duties, reporting structures and physical location of the 170,000 employees who would be pulled from 21 existing agencies and offices into the department.

"I did not come away with any new facts," said National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley, who met with White House officials along with American Federation of Government Employees President Bobby Harnage. "They were more or less trying to find out what our knee-jerk reaction to the proposal was," Harnage said.

White House personnel chief Clay Johnson, Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management-designate Mark Everson and Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James met with the union leaders.

The union leaders said they have many concerns with the proposal, including the administration's plan to reorganize the agencies without increasing their budgets or staffs. For example, Kelley said the Customs Service needs more agents.

Harnage said he was concerned that the proposal did not guarantee that employees of the new department would have the right to belong to a union. Officials at the meeting gave no indication whether they would support union representation, Harnage said.

The union leaders also questioned the need to give the proposed department's leaders freedom from existing federal personnel rules and regulations. The administration's proposal called for "significant flexibility" for department officials in "hiring processes, compensation systems and practices, and performance management to recruit, retain, and develop a motivated, high-performance and accountable workforce."

"We already have a motivated, high-performance workforce," Harnage said, adding that the administration's proposed flexibility in procurement could also lead to abuse. "We don't want politics and cronyism back in the federal government," he said.

Kelley said officials haven't explained what's wrong with existing federal personnel rules to justify the flexibilities it is proposing for the new agency. "I'm not sure what they need those for or what they're trying to fix," she said. "Agencies don't use the flexibilities they have today. When flexibility is provided and no funding is provided to go with it, it will be a failure."

Kelley said she is also concerned that the administration's proposal could merge Customs and Border Patrol agents into a single unit. "There's no recognition that they do different jobs, they have different missions and they have different expertise," she said. "To just mix them up and put them all in one pool as if they're interchangeable is a mistake. It will ensure the loss of expertise and the dilution of their skills."

The union leaders said they hope the meeting is a signal that the administration will include unions in the development of the department. "It looks like we're beginning to break the ice" with the administration, Harnage said.

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