Defense labor relations reforms waiting on Congress

The Defense Department is holding off on implementing the labor relations portions of its new personnel system, at least until pending legislation that could affect the system is completed, a top personnel official said Tuesday.

Mary Lacey, program executive officer for the National Security Personnel System, said the department will not move bargaining unit employees into the system until Congress makes up its mind about pending legislation that could defund or repeal portions of NSPS. She made her remarks at the HRGov human resources conference in Morgantown, W.Va.

"We are waiting to see what this Congress does with the bills we are hoping will be passed in September and October before we decide what to do," Lacey said.

She cited the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2008 Defense authorization bill, both of which include provisions that would repeal the Pentagon's authority to limit collective bargaining. Last month, the House approved a bipartisan spending bill amendment that would block funding for the labor relations portions of NSPS.

"We're pretty sure Congress is going to take away the authority to make any changes to labor relations," Lacey said, "so why would I rush to implement this . . . only to see that four to five weeks later that authority would go away?"

The department will have the ability to limit collective bargaining once an appeals court issues a mandate stemming from a May ruling that the law creating NSPS grants the agency temporary authority to curtail employee bargaining rights. The American Federation of Government Employees, one of the unions in a coalition that brought the lawsuit against NSPS, is considering a solo effort to challenge the appeals court's decision before the Supreme Court.

Last week, the National Federation of Federal Employees, another union in the coalition, characterized the delay in implementation as a responsible move.

"It would be unfair to make collective bargaining agreements null and void when restoration of bargaining rights is very likely to be [granted] by Congress in the coming months," said NFFE President Richard Brown. "Waiting to see how the legislation pans out is the responsible thing to do."

Lacey told Government Executive in a separate interview that the department also is in the process of hiring an executive director for labor management and employee relations, a position that has been vacant for about five years. The new director will be responsible for advising the department on labor relations and negotiating with unions, she said.

"Some new blood on DoD's labor relations team is probably a good thing," Brown said. "We encourage the agency to choose a person that will reach out to the unions and hear concerns coming from the rank and file Defense workers. The workers deserve a real opportunity to help shape NSPS."

Meanwhile, Lacey reiterated that the department is not out to severely limit collective bargaining and employee rights. "The unions bring an important voice to the table," she said. "They have a perspective that needs to be taken into account."

Still, she noted that Defense employees are members of more than 1,500 local bargaining units, adding complexity. If Defense Secretary Robert Gates were to make a change that departs from the way the rest of the government operates, for example, that change currently would be subject to bargaining, she said.

"We want the ability to move forward and not bargain 1,500 times every once in a while on some things," Lacey said. "There's not a lot of gain in having 1,500 different versions of a system."

Lacey said that the Pentagon is fully willing to bargain under Chapter 71 rules, which govern labor-management relations for federal employees, though there are certain policies the department would prefer to negotiate on a national level. For example, she noted that there are only so many ways to negotiate policies like those for drug testing, adding that there are no drug policies agreed to uniformly across the department.

"If we can get to an agreement on a national level on core elements and then just do local bargaining for local implementation, I think it would save everybody a lot of resources," she said.

According to NFFE, many unions have submitted proposals to the department on such national-level issues. "Our union has never been opposed to national-level bargaining or other similar common sense reforms," Brown said.

But Lacey added that there are certain things the department does not want to have subject to bargaining, such as the setting of pay scales. "That can upset the equity across the department," she said.

Lacey noted the department is still intent on advancing the collective bargaining portions of NSPS. "Assuming we get things worked out with the Hill, we will move forward with the bargaining portions," she said. "But we're still a long way off from doing that."

Currently, 110,000 nonbargaining unit employees have been converted to the new personnel system. The department plans to bring an additional 90,000 into the system at the beginning of fiscal 2008, with another 70,000 coming in March. Eventually, the system is slated to encompass 700,000 civilian employees.

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