Personnel reform changing the labor-management model

In June 2002, the White House unveiled proposed legislation to create the Homeland Security Department. The proposal asked for presidential authority to waive collective bargaining when necessary for national security and also called for the creation of a personnel system that would restrict collective bargaining. Federal labor unions protested. Democrats on Capitol Hill balked. But President Bush threatened to veto the legislation if his limits on the unions were removed.

"To meet the threats, I must be able - and future presidents must be able - to move people and resources where they're needed, and to do it quickly, without being forced to comply with a thick book of rules," he said.

Fearful of standing in the way of homeland security legislation, Democrats backed down. They insisted that union voices be heard in the design of a new personnel system, but they let the department have the final say. For the unions, it was a fateful moment. Soon, the Defense Department asked Congress for, and received, similar authority. And now both departments are on the verge of rolling out their systems.

Under the new systems, nearly half of all civil servants will lose the ability to rely on unions to look after their interests in the assigning of work, the deploying of personnel and the use of technology. Most issues once governed by bargaining agreements now will fall under the broad rubric of management rights. That includes everything from overtime, shift rotations and deployment away from regular work sites, to health and safety concerns about new technologies. Federal unions have never had the right to bargain over pay or benefits, as their private sector counterparts do, or to strike.

As personnel reform sweeps across the government, the traditional labor relations model is being turned on its head -- what does that mean for the civil service? Shawn Zeller explores this issue and more in the July 1 issue of Government Executive. Read the full story here.