Agencies order contractors to tell workers they don't have to join unions

The Defense Department, General Services Administration and NASA have issued an interim rule calling for government contractors to post notices telling employees that they are not required to join unions - a rule that has existed in various forms since the administration of the first President Bush, but one that still rankles federal unions.

The Federal Acquisition Circular amends the Federal Acquisition Regulation, which is the document that oversees government purchasing of supplies and services.

The interim rule on unions implements an executive order issued by President George W. Bush in February 2001. Bush said it is designed "to promote economy and efficiency in government procurement. When workers are better informed of their rights… their productivity is enhanced."

According to the order, contractors must post the union notice in "conspicuous places" and it must include the following statement: "Under federal law, employees cannot be required to join a union or maintain membership in a union in order to retain their jobs."

The statement must also explain that nonunion employees can only be required to pay dues for collective bargaining, contract administration and grievance adjustment, and that employees who believe they have been paying dues for other costs may be entitled to refunds.

Matthew Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, called the rule unbalanced. "It didn't compel contractors to tell employees that they had the right to join a union, only that they had the right not to join a union," he said, adding employees already know their rights.

"I believe that employees would be better served with a more neutral statement outlining all their rights and benefits with regard to labor unions, including their right to organize and bargain collectively," said National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley.

President George H. W. Bush had issued a similar posting requirement in 1992, which was revoked by President Clinton. The current president's executive order was overturned by a federal judge in January 2002, but that decision was overturned three months later by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

The Labor Department implemented the executive order in April 2004, but it has not yet been incorporated into the FAR. The FAR secretariat will accept comments on the interim rule through Feb. 18.

The Federal Acquisition Circular also includes rules that expedite purchasing during emergencies, such as a nuclear or chemical attack, and require bidders to replace more paper processes with electronic statements.

The rules implement provisions in the the Services Acquisition Reform Act of 2003 and the 2005 Defense Authorization Act. They go into effect Jan. 19.

Cathy Garman, senior vice president of public policy at the Contract Services Association, which represents government contractors, said the emergency acquisition rule change will likely have more of an impact on the Defense Department than on individual contractors.

"For the government, it makes it easier for them to get what they want," she said. Under the simplified acquisition procedures, she added, contracting officers have fewer restrictions, including a shorter required time period for posting requests.

One federal procurement official, who asked not to be named, said the expedited process allows contractors to use the "excuse of emergencies" to avoid oversight. The official added the process should not cause problems as long as it isn't misapplied to nonemergency situations.

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