Recent Bush initiatives raise issue of lower morale

Last week, George W. Bush became the first president since Dwight Eisenhower to give federal workers an extra half-day off at Christmas in a year when the holiday fell in the middle of the work week. But for those who represent federal employees, the gesture was too little, too late. A series of other moves in recent months has soured the Bush administration's relationship with rank-and-file federal employees, they say.

Some labor leaders now consider Bush to be an active enemy of federal workers. Others say there's still time for the administration to mend fences.

Revelations in early December that the administration had decided to restore the practice of awarding bonuses to political appointees were the latest in a series of moves that irked federal workers and drew the ire of federal labor leaders.

In late November, just before the story about the bonuses broke publicly, Bush announced he would limit pay increases for federal employees under the General Schedule to 3.1 percent next year, rather than the 4.1 percent raise the military will receive. Bush also indicated he would freeze locality pay for civilian employees at 2002 levels.

The pay decision came on the heels of a raging debate over whether to grant officials at the new Homeland Security Department broad flexibility to hire, fire and pay the approximately 170,000 workers who will move into the department.

"Other administrations have attempted to beat up on the federal workforce, but this is worse," said Bobby Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union. "Bush's relationship with federal workers is two notches below poor."

National Treasury Employees Union president Colleen Kelley agreed that tensions are higher than she remembers under Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush. "With this administration, it's not just one or two issues where we have differences," she said. "It's been pretty much nonstop."

Paul Light, vice president and director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, compared President Bush's relationship with the unions to Ronald Reagan's experiences early in his first term.

Reagan angered federal employees by creating a commission, headed by prominent businessman J. Peter Grace, to seek out waste and inefficiency in federal operations. Reagan imposed a hiring freeze on federal agencies in January 1981. But his administration's relationship with workers improved in later years, as defense spending increased and more jobs opened, Light said.

Kelley said she is hopeful that federal employees' relationship with President Bush will take a similar turn for the better, as the administration attempts to reassure and motivate workers moving into the Homeland Security Department on Jan. 24.

"The jury's still out, but I think the potential is there," she said. "I think the administration realizes that its best chance of success is to make sure that the men and women in the agency are appropriately recognized for their hard work."

Kelley pointed to Homeland Security Secretary-designate Tom Ridge's town hall-style meeting last week with employees moving to the new department as a step in the right direction. At the meeting, Ridge assured employees that they will not lose their bargaining rights or jobs. Their pay and benefits will also remain intact for at least a year, as the law creating the department requires, he said.

Harnage said he's unconvinced by the recent moves. "The administration is mean-spirited," he said. "It has orchestrated an effort to take away as many federal jobs as it can and give them to the private sector."

In March 2001, the administration set a goal of putting 425,000 federal jobs, or half of all government jobs considered commercial in nature, up for competition with the private sector. In proposed revisions to Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76, which governs such competitions, OMB said that all federal employees who work in jobs classified as commercial should ultimately face competition -- there are 850,000 such employees.

But Light said such moves don't mean that Bush is out to get federal workers. "I don't believe there's any vast right-wing conspiracy out there to bust the unions," he said. "I think that the administration rightly believes that the civil service system is broken and that it needs to be fixed. I think that they've been trying to mount a positive agenda to do so."

Other administrations might not have angered federal workers as much, but they also did not make as much of an effort to address key federal management issues, Light added.

"Certainly federal employees are a valuable asset to our country, and the administration is trying to implement policies to help them do their jobs better," said Amy Call, an OMB spokeswoman. She pointed to the president's management agenda, which outlines five strategies for making government more efficient.

The administration means well, but has often engendered a poor relationship by sending federal employees mixed messages, or by timing announcements poorly, Light said.

"One day, [civil servants] get a positive message about how important they are, and later in the same week, they get a message that they have to give up part of their pay increase in the name of national security," he said.

Kelley said that she is worried that if workers remain disgruntled, many who are eligible to retire will do so in January. And if Bush does not move to appease civil servants on issues like the pay raise and scale back his outsourcing initiatives, it will be hard to find new people to replace the retirees, she added.

But Light said that if the changes the administration is making work as intended, the government will ultimately become a more efficient and better place to work, making civil service jobs more attractive.

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