- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 10, 2002

The dispute over unionized employees in the proposed Department of Homeland Security is coming down to choosing between national security or workers' rights.

President Bush told lawmakers at a White House meeting last week he would veto any bill that does not give him broad authority to hire, fire and determine pay for the 170,000 employees who would fall under the new Cabinet agency.

More than 44,000 of those employees are members of 17 unions. The two largest are the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union.

"It is important that we have the managerial flexibility to get the job done right," Mr. Bush said. "We can't be micromanaged. We ought to say, let's make sure authority and responsibility are aligned so they can more adequately protect the homeland."

Republicans are putting together two amendments that would give the president the "flexibility" he demands.

Democrats said they do not plan to change the current language of their bill that would give workers collective-bargaining rights. It also would keep current civil service procedures that control job rights of government employees.

A vote in the Senate is expected sometime in the next several weeks.

Current law forbids government workers from striking, although it gives them collective-bargaining rights. They can be fired immediately for violating the law.

"Union membership and collective bargaining has never been a risk to national security," said AFGE President Bobby Harnage. "That's something that the president's advisers came up with that is not only ridiculous it's an insult."

Job rights are spelled out in Title V of the Civil Service Reform Act.

Title V gives management the right to override normal procedures and labor agreements in an emergency.

One section says, "Nothing in this chapter shall affect the authority of any management official of any agency to take whatever actions may be necessary to carry out the agency's mission during emergencies."

Other sections describe hiring and firing procedures.

Currently, new hires require an average of five months, which includes writing job descriptions, posting notices of the openings and interviewing the top three candidates.

Before employees are fired, Title V requires a warning to a poor performer and a year to improve before the employee can be terminated. Suspended employees get 30 days' notification of termination with full pay. After the notification, employees can appeal terminations, which includes a hearing process that averages 18 months to complete.

One Republican amendment would give Mr. Bush exemptions from the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 to speed up personnel decisions.

Current procedures can delay terminations, new hires or transfers by up to six months or even a year.

Republicans also want to give the secretary for Homeland Security the authority to award bonuses or promotions based on good performance, rather than letting pay be determined by seniority.

The second amendment would allow the president to waive union agreements for national security reasons. The Democratic bill would allow the president to waive union protections only for individual employees when he could prove it was necessary.

Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, said the flexibility provisions are important for an effective response to terrorism. Otherwise, the Homeland Security secretary would become mired in personnel procedures that slow the agency's response.

"I believe we're setting ourselves up for failure if we don't give the secretary flexibility to manage the department," Mr. Thompson said.

More than half the transferring workers, or 24,795, would come from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Another 10,580 would come from the Customs Service. The rest are spread among the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and six other agencies that handle specialty issues, such as computer-hacker attacks and nuclear radiation hazards.

Unions representing them include the National Association of Agriculture Employees, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Federal Law Enforcement Association.

Republicans accuse Democrats of pandering to the labor unions that support their elections, while Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to weaken unions.

In the 2000 general election, unions contributed nearly $79 million to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They contributed less than $5 million to Republicans.

"The issue before us is really whether to allow this administration to issue blanket exclusions of federal workers from their fundamental rights," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.

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