Federal workers protest outsourcing at Washington rally

A couple hundred federal workers gathered in Washington Tuesday to protest the privatization of government jobs.

Martha Harvin has until the end of the year to find a new job. Earlier this year, after 21 years of federal service, she was told that her job was being contracted out. She has a job search under way, but isn't leaving the Agriculture Department without a fight.

Harvin and a couple hundred other federal workers gathered in Washington Tuesday to protest the privatization of government jobs-in some cases, like Harvin's, their own jobs.

"I'm standing here fighting for my career," Harvin said to a crowd of workers representing several workers' unions, civil rights groups and employee associations. "We were not allowed to compete for our jobs."

The NAACP's Federal Sector Task Force, the American Federation of Government Employees, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility were among the groups that organized the protest, part of an effort by federal employee groups to combat what they see as a Bush administration effort to hand their jobs over to contractors.

The administration is pushing agencies to hold competitions between government workers and contractors for up to 425,000 federal jobs-half of the 850,000 jobs that agencies have classified as commercial in nature. Such public-private competitions have been underway at the Defense Department for years. The Bush administration is making civilian agencies undertake so-called "competitive sourcing" efforts for the first time.

The administration is also letting agencies contract out small groups of positions without first giving federal workers the chance to compete for their jobs, as is the case for Harvin. Her job in a correspondence branch of the Agriculture Department's Rural Development Agency is slated for direct conversion to a contractor position. In January, she received notice that she had to find a new job by the end of March. The agency later gave her until the end of the year.

"Management can pick and choose who they want to go and stay," Harvin said. Employees have no appeal rights when their jobs are slated for direct conversion, so she and some of her co-workers are writing letters to Congress to try and save their jobs.

Harvin said the jobs slated for contracting out in her office this year were held by nine African Americans, four people with disabilities and one white person. Several speakers at the protest said minorities and women hold many of the jobs that are slated for outsourcing or public-private competition. Jennifer Coken, national campaign director for the National Parks Conservation Association, pointed to a National Park Service memo that said 89 percent of the service's jobs targeted for outsourcing in the Washington area are held by minorities.

Protesters held signs reading "Privatization …. From the folks who brought you Enron," "Should Taxes Go For Profits, Greed and Corruption or Public Service" and "No Contracting Out Quotas."

Cathy Garman, vice president for public policy at the Contract Services Association of America, said protesters were unfair to question the motivation of contractors.

"That is an insult to the millions of Americans who work for private companies," Garman said. "Yes, private firms have to look out for the bottom line, but contractors take on government contracts because they think they can do the best job. Many are retired civil servants and retired military."

Garman also said that contracts often go to minority-owned and women-owned businesses. She also questioned the notion that contractor jobs don't pay well. "If that's the case, then how come [in] The Washington Post we have all these stories about how federal employees need better pay?" In addition, she said that studies by the General Accounting Office and the Center for Naval Analyses have found that public-private competitions save money.

The protest included employees from a wide range of agencies, including the Defense Department, the Forest Service, the Justice Department and the National Park Service.

Ron Coe, president of AFGE Local 1411 in Indianapolis, Ind., and a Defense Department employee, said work should be outsourced if doing so is in the interest of the taxpayers, but federal workers should be given a chance to compete. "Our motive is not selfish. We don't just want to keep our jobs," Coe said. "The employees believe we are supporting the warfighter."