House backs full collective bargaining rights at Defense

The House on Saturday approved a bipartisan spending bill amendment that would protect the collective bargaining and appeal rights of civilian employees as the Defense Department overhauls its personnel system.

The amendment, offered by Reps. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., was added to the 2008 Defense appropriations bill (H.R. 3222) and passed without objection by voice vote.

The provision would block funding for portions of the Pentagon's National Security Personnel System relating to employee collective bargaining and appeal rights. Inslee and other lawmakers have opposed NSPS and other personnel overhauls championed by the Bush administration on the grounds that such systems could lead to the appointment and promotion of workers based on their political views rather than merit.

"The administration cannot be allowed to destroy a century worth of protections against abuses in the federal employment system," Inslee said in a statement. "The Defense Department never should have implemented a personnel system that denies basic worker rights and weakens our nation's defense in the first place."

In May, an appeals court ruled that a 2004 law grants the Pentagon the authority to curtail the collective bargaining rights of employees until November 2009. That ruling reversed a district court decision that struck down the labor relations portions of the system.

While the amendment passed the House last year as part of the 2007 Defense appropriations bill, it was modified in House and Senate conference negotiations. Conferees tacked on a provision to last year's bill that restored all funding to the personnel reforms if the district court's ruling was overturned.

A coalition of federal labor unions last month filed a petition for full court review of the appeals decision. In the meantime, unions have been lobbying Congress to block funding or fully repeal the system.

"Not only is the passage of this amendment a huge step in the right direction toward bringing fairness back to the DoD workforce, it is also in the national security interest of our nation," said Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

Richard Brown, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said Monday that the union will lobby the Senate to include the same language in its version of the appropriations bill.

Language to reform or repeal NSPS also has been included in House and Senate versions of the 2008 Defense authorization bills. In May, the House voted to repeal the existing authority of Defense to move forward on the labor relations portions of the system. Thus far, the full Senate has failed to move on its version of the authorization bill, which would permit the Pentagon to go forward with personnel reforms, as long as the system is consistent with existing federal labor relations law.

"At this point, we cannot count on the Defense authorization bill getting passed," Brown said. "That made it all the more important for Congress to strip funding for NSPS."

In addition to scaling back collective bargaining rights, the reforms are aimed at tying pay more closely to job performance. About 113,000 nonbargaining unit civilian employees have switched to the performance-based pay plan so far. Eventually, the system is slated to encompass 700,000 employees.

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