WASHINGTON – It’s been a rough year for federal labor unions.
They lost a high-profile fight over union rights at the new Department of Homeland Security, the White House identified almost half the federal workforce for privatization, and workers lost part of an expected raise while managers were getting bonuses.
“You’re just wondering what will possibly be next,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “The Bush administration has ensured that people won’t want to stay.”
Labor analysts said the moves by President Bush and Congress reflect a “revolution” in the view of the public sector, as well as a political agenda that aims to instill fear in federal employees as a way to increase productivity and cut costs.
Union leaders said the moves, particularly the threat to privatize up to 850,000 federal jobs, are a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that will send public- sector workers out to work in the private industry.
Of greatest concern is the administration’s decision last month to classify 850,000 federal jobs as “commercial” in nature, making them subject to outsourcing. An Office of Management and Budget circular laying the groundwork for that change cuts the time for bidding jobs to 12 months, from as much as four years now, and changes the rules for private bids from best practice and lowest cost to “best value.”
The administration said the move is designed to stimulate technological change and promote new approaches to old jobs.
“We have streamlined it to make the competition more timely,” said Amy Call, an OMB spokeswoman. “We’re saying, `Let’s look at this process and make it work better.'”
But labor analysts said it is part of a highly political agenda that reflects the administration’s “managerial philosophy.”
“What’s new is an apparent initiative on the part of the Bush administration to rock the boat right inside the Beltway,” said Mark Hager, law professor at American University. “It’s called `incentivizing discipline.'”
Hager said the president subscribes to the philosophy that federal workers are less productive because job security is so solid, and that making them compete for their jobs will increase productivity. But private industry has not shown itself to be more efficient than the public sector, he said, citing the privatization of schools and prisons.
“Corporate America is not free of its own waste and problems,” he said.
Jacque Simon, public policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, said the proposed changes would “spell the doom of federal employees.” She said that once a contract is in private hands, it becomes harder to track tax dollars.
“It’s a huge scandal. What are we paying? What are you ordering? This is all on the taxpayers’ tabs,” Simon said. “What will we be financing? We don’t know.”
Call said bids are posted on the Internet, but she was not sure if the details of winning contracts are made available.
“I’m sure it’s public information, but how you would actually go about getting it I don’t know,” she said.
She also said federal employees should not worry about their job security, because they will be able to bid on their own jobs, in competition with private bidders.
But unions are still smarting over job protections that they said were stripped from workers who will be shifted into the new Department of Homeland Security. Of the 170,000 federal employees who will make up the agency, about 48,000 now have union membership.
The Homeland Security Act lets unions comment on proposed personnel changes in the department, but the president can ultimately do what he wants if he notifies Congress within 10 days that national security is at stake.
George Washington University law professor Charles Craver said the loss of job protections could mean workers in the new department will be less inclined to work productively. Kelley said that “trying to motivate employees out of fear or threats is a Neanderthal way to manage. They’re going to find it very hard to retain employees.”
Craver said employees will also be driven away by the loss of locality pay, which comes as political appointees are getting bonuses.
A promised 4.1 percent raise for workers in high-cost markets was effectively knocked down to 3.1 percent when the administration said it would cut locality pay — extra money to offset living expenses in costly areas.
At the same time, political appointees earning $115,000 to $140,000 will get bonuses ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. The White House said about 2,000 executives will be eligible.
Hager said the president “should be pelted with raw eggs and rotten vegetables” for giving out bonuses, and it runs counter to his cost-cutting philosophy.
“It’s a pro-top-guys thing and flies in the face of saving money by privatizing,” Hager said. “If your objective is to be cutting costs, why do we need this now? They feel management’s pain and no one else’s.”
But a White House spokesman defended the bonuses.
“Good work is good work, whether you’re in the civil service or a political appointee,” said Taylor Griffin. “There are 1.8 million people in the civil service and only 2,000 political appointees. Do the math. We’re talking about a minuscule number here.”
Union officials and labor analysts argue the administration may be setting itself up for long-term problems with its short-term savings, noting that nearly half the federal workforce is up for retirement in the next five years. But they do not expect relief anytime soon.
“This will be the first test. Federal employees should expect another bad year next year,” Kelley said.