Democrats Rally to Protect Unions at New Security Dept.

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - Senate Democrats rallied with more than 100 union workers Wednesday to demand full union benefits and privileges for employees of the proposed new Department of Homeland Security. The unions oppose Bush administration requests for "management flexibility" at the new agency.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), author of the Senate's Homeland Security bill, wants to give union workers the job guarantees they seek and accused President Bush of engaging in "an effort to strip federal workers of their just civil service and collective bargaining protections."

"With all respect, the president of the United States has lost his focus here. The focus should be on homeland security, not on the rights of federal workers," Lieberman said. "We've got to remind the president that the enemy here is Osama bin Laden, not Bobby Harnage."

As previously reported, Harnage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), accused the Bush administration of lying about the limits placed on government managers by union contracts.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) said that, on Sept. 11, the union membership of emergency personnel in New York did not hamper their ability or desire to do their jobs.

"Our union members - who are in our police department, and our port authority, and our fire department, and our EMTs didn't stop and say, 'Well, you know, I'm not on duty. I have to look at my agreement here because I'm really not supposed to be working today,'" she argued. "It was the farthest thing from their minds."

But officials with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) say the unions and their supporters are misrepresenting and distorting White House proposals for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). OPM Director Kay Coles James said the administration is doing exactly the opposite of what Democrats charge.

"The truth is that President Bush supports legislation for DHS, which specifically affirms the [civil service and collective bargaining] protections currently provided to the federal workforce," she explained. "They include all merit system principles such as whistleblower protection and veterans' preference."

What the Bush administration's proposals do not include is "guaranteed raises just for showing up at work," according to an OPM official who provided a background briefing to

Under the current classification system, created in 1945, each job has a specific general schedule or "GS" rating, determined by the required qualifications and experience needed to perform the basic functions of the job. Employees at that "GS" rating then move through 10 "steps" of pay raises.

The system guarantees a federal employee a 30 percent pay raise over 20 years for job performance that meets "an acceptable level of competence." The pay increases are awarded in "steps," one step for each of the first three years of service; one step for every two years of service during the next six years; and one step for every three years of service during the following 12 years.

The White House wants a new system that lays out the basic requirements for an employee to keep their job and receive cost-of-living raises, but that allows managers the "flexibility" to reward employees who perform above that "acceptable level of competence," and to restrict merit raises only to those who show initiative or growth.

OPM officials argue that, under the existing pay structure, highly-motivated and productive employees receive the same pay and raises as employees "who simply show up at the office and do the minimum amount of work required."

Federal pay records indicate that 68 percent of federal GS employees' raises are automatic, another 23 percent are "almost automatic" based on length of service and attendance standards, and only nine percent are performance related.

Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) argues, however, that union workers deserve those guaranteed raises and other benefits not available to non-union workers in the private sector.

"These men and women have had a lifetime of dedication and commitment to this country," he said, "and we are going to stand with them to make sure that their rights are going to be protected in the Homeland Security Department."

Scott Hatch, director of communications for OPM, said union workers who are transferred to the new DHS will lose nothing.

"This has never been an attempt to gut the unions. The president has never intended that," he said. "In fact, one of the things that he wanted guaranteed was - as the employees come over from various departments into the new Department of Homeland Security - that they arrive with their pay, their benefits, and with their union membership intact."

Hatch said the House-passed Homeland Security Act of 2002, which the president supports, includes the civil service protections Democrats and the unions claim they want, but allows federal managers the ability to get the right personnel in the right places at the right times, without the delays imposed by archaic civil service requirements.

Dan Cronin, director of legal information for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said the real issue for Senate Democrats is protecting union leaders' power, not workers' rights.

"The Senate Bill ties the president's hands behind his back and puts the demands of union bosses ahead of national security," he warned. "When you're talking about a life or death situation like this, you can't have that."

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