WASHINGTON – Leaders from the Defense Department’s largest union, the American Federation of Government Employees, announced today that they are withdrawing from labor-management discussions on changes to the Pentagon’s civilian personnel system in response to retaliatory actions being taken against a federal worker.
AFGE, along with other DoD worker unions, began meeting with DoD management personnel in February to begin jointly designing new personnel system components related to performance management, work force incentives and hiring flexibilities. Congress authorized DoD to consider changes to these areas after dismantling DoD’s failed National Security Personnel System.
AFGE has played a lead role in those design team meetings and had been assured by John James, director of the NSPS transition office, that it could select any of its members from within the department to take part in those discussions, said Don Hale, president of AFGE’s Defense Conference. However, the Air Force has refused to allow one particular employee to participate in retaliation for her labor activities on base.
“They are targeting this employee to discourage union membership. This is nothing less than union busting, and we won’t stand for it,” Hale said. “We are a union and we are going to stand by each and every one of our union members. We are pulling out of the design team, and the Air Force Command and DoD’s senior leaders can explain it to Congress.”
AFGE National President John Gage sent a letter to James today notifying him of AFGE’s decision to withdraw from the design team process. AFGE suggested that the dispute be resolved through an expedited hearing before a third-party mediator, whose decision would be binding on AFGE and DoD, but Air Force officials refused the offer.
The employee in question, Julie Sheehan, is a registered nurse at the Offutt Air Force Base hospital in Nebraska. She has been denied a request to attend the design team meetings in Washington, D.C., even though she had previously participated in an initial labor-management meeting in September in Los Angeles. She used annual leave to attend the first round of meetings in February, but the Air Force has refused to let her attend additional meetings.
Hale said the Air Force is retaliating against Sheehan for her successful organizing and collective bargaining efforts at Offutt. As vice president of AFGE Local 1486, Sheehan forged a partnership between Offutt’s collective bargaining employees and professional employees to improve workplace conditions at the base. Since then, she has been subjected to claims of performance shortcomings and placed on a performance improvement plan, which can lead to removal, even though she had previously been rated a top performer throughout her 16 years of service.
Sheehan tends to well children in the pediatric unit, and her previous absences to address union business have resulted in no disruptions in service, Hale said.
“There is no rational reason why Julie can’t participate. Her job does not directly impact wounded warriors or other mission critical areas. Her work involves caring for healthy children who are facing no serious illnesses or injuries,” Hale said.
Pulling out of the design teams was a difficult decision, but Pentagon officials gave AFGE no choice, Hale said. Unions had no input into deciding which management representatives the Pentagon selected for the design teams and had been assured that there would be no interference by the department in which representatives the unions selected.
“If the Air Force withdraws its trumped-up charges against Julie and allows her to participate in the design teams without retribution, then we will most certainly come back to the table to continue the work that Congress entrusted us to do,” Hale said.