Unions attack Pentagon’s policy switch on national bargaining

National-level bargaining was portrayed as one of “three pillars” of personnel reforms in initial talks.

The 10 unions that filed suit Monday against the Pentagon's new labor relations system said the rules are inconsistent with the Defense Department's original stated intent.

At a June 2003 hearing before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified on the need to overhaul the Defense personnel system for civilians. In his statements on collective bargaining, he primarily discussed the elimination of local bargaining units in favor of national-level bargaining-a proposal that did not make it into the Pentagon's final regulations.

The National Security Personnel System "will not end collective bargaining," Rumsfeld said in 2003. "To the contrary, the right of Defense employees to bargain collectively would be continued. What it would do is to bring collective bargaining to the national level, so that the department could negotiate with national unions instead of dealing with more than 1,300 different union locals-a process that is grossly inefficient."

While this proposal, which the unions said they supported, is not part of the final regulations on NSPS, a number of provisions that the labor groups find more problematic, such as the ability for high-level officials to override existing collective bargaining agreements and prohibitions on certain topics for bargaining, are included, the lawsuit states.

The American Federation of Government Employees-the largest of the 10 unions banding together for this lawsuit-said it agrees with the concept of national-level bargaining.

"We're not against it," said AFGE assistant general counsel Joe Goldberg. "As a matter of fact, we've made numerous efforts to conduct national-level bargaining . . . and have been rebuffed by DoD."

Goldberg said he believes the proposal to eliminate local bargaining units was a "sound bite" to get congressional backing for NSPS, and was an idea the department never intended to implement.

In a document on the NSPS Web site published after the release of the system's final regulations in October, Defense officials said that much of local bargaining will remain intact.

"National-level bargaining will not eliminate local unions or local collective bargaining," the document said. "There will still be local bargaining on a variety of matters and there will still be local collective bargaining agreements."

While the NSPS does not eliminate local bargaining, it does provide for some national-level bargaining to occur.

"National-level bargaining is expected to be used on departmentwide or componentwide policies that require consistent and timely implementation," the document said. "There are still numerous issues that are unique to the local installation that remain subject to collective bargaining under NSPS."

In the same June 2003 Senate hearing where Rumsfeld testified, Chairman Susan Collins, R-Maine, described what she called the "three pillars" of the Defense proposal: pay-for-performance, on-the-spot hiring for hard-to-fill positions, and raising collective bargaining to the national level.

In the final regulations, NSPS officials confirmed that "labor organizations participating in the meet-and-confer process…acknowledged that bargaining at the national level could be appropriate, under certain circumstances."

They said, though, that unions objected to some aspects of the power, including "provisions requiring these negotiations to supersede all conflicting provisions of existing collective bargaining agreements."

The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia by AFGE and nine other unions, charges that the Pentagon went beyond the intent of authorizing legislation. Pay-for-performance, pay-banding, market-based pay and other human resources aspects of NSPS were not included in the lawsuit, but Goldberg said unions have not ruled out a future complaint on those issues.

NSPS officials referred phone calls on the role of national-level bargaining in the final regulations to the Justice Department. In turn, Justice spokesman Charles Miller said the lawsuit was only filed a day ago and "[we] don't even know how we'll respond yet."