Work Force Rights Must Be Protected

Posted May 29, 2003 at 1:06pm

As this article is being prepared, the U.S. House is getting ready to consider H.R. 1588 to authorize appropriations for fiscal 2004 and for military activities of the Defense Department. The bill is remarkable for a number of reasons, including the return to Cold War-level appropriations, the reopening of nuclear weapon development, far-reaching changes in laws protecting the environment, the continuation of the unproven missile defense program and the inclusion of a remarkable set of provisions which amount to nothing less than a major revision of the Civil Service.

The changes in the Civil Service will impact almost 700,000

civilian employees at the Defense Department — about one-third of the entire federal civilian work force. H.R. 1588 provides no information on how employees will be evaluated and how the pay system will be structured. No information is provided on who will get bonuses and how the new system will guard against patronage and political influence. The Congressional Budget Office reported to Congress that it “does not have sufficient information about how DOD might implement those authorities to estimate their cost.” The one thing certain about this legislation is that the secretary of Defense will have the power to make changes to long-held Civil Service principles with little or no Congressional oversight. [IMGCAP(1)]

The freedoms and rights some take for granted today did not come easily or automatically. They were won with great difficulty and effort and struggle. With the rise of mass-based political parties in the early 19th century the spoils system corrupted and undermined the operation of our government. The situation had become desperate by the end of the Civil War. Presidents Grant, Hayes, Garfield and Arthur all experimented with various attempts at creating a Civil Service, without success. Finally, in 1883 a bipartisan majority passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.

By the 1920s, 80 percent of civilian employees functioned under merit system rules, and by the end of the 1930s that figure reached 90 percent. There were additional reforms following World War II providing increased flexibility and following Watergate which abolished the Civil Service Commission and created the Office of Personnel Management. I believe that America’s civilian work force is the most efficient, productive and effective in the world, in large measure due to the protections of our Civil Service system.

There is general agreement that the Defense Department should have flexibilities in personnel decisions, including pay and promotion, in order to provide the strongest possible national defense. I also agree that military personnel should not be performing jobs that could be done by civilians. But I see no rationale in doing away, in one crude stroke, with the basic rights and protections of one-third of the federal civilian work force. The performance of our nation’s defenders, military and civilian, provide the strongest possible evidence that there is no contradiction between an efficient civilian work force and the protection of civilian worker rights.

Congress received a report on the Defense Department’s Civilian Industrial Workforce from the General Accounting Office in April which states, in part, “The services have not developed and implemented strategic work force plans to position the civilian work force in DOD industrial activities to meet future requirements. … Furthermore, work force planning is lacking in other areas that the Office of Personnel Management guidance and high-performing organizations identify as key to successful work force planning.”

The comptroller general went on to say, “If additional flexibilities are desired, agencies should develop sound business cases to justify the need for the additional authorities.” No justification, and no business cases have been made for either the Defense Department or NASA.

Therefore, Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and I introduced a “Labor Bill of Rights” amendment which unfortunately was not made in order by the Rules Committee. The Bill of Rights would have established safeguards recommended by the General Accounting Office before any agency receives additional flexibilities from Title 5. The Bill of Rights would ensure certain long-held protections for federal employees:

• The right of employees to join (or not join) a union and to engage in collective bargaining through union representatives;

• The right of employees to receive a veterans preference in hiring and layoffs;

• The right of employees to be free from favoritism or discrimination based on the employee’s political affiliation;

• The right of employees to receive due process rights before being fired or suspended;

• The right of employees to challenge discriminatory actions to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and

• The right of employees to receive overtime pay, pay for working on Sundays or holidays, and hazardous pay.

The credibility of the current administration on labor rights and civil liberties has been severely damaged by actions such as:

• Ending project labor agreements (later overruled by the court);

• Ending rights when federal contractors change;

• Abolishing labor-management systems;

• Undermining union dues (later struck down by the court);

• Gutting ergonomics regulations;

• Repeal of “responsible contractor” provisions;

• Suspension of new black lung regulations;

• Recess appointments of Eugene Scalia to the Labor Department and Michael Bartlett and William Cowen to the National Labor Relations Board.

• Intervention to block strikes at Northwest, Delta and United airlines;

• Termination of union representation and collective bargaining agreements in several Justice Department agencies in the name of “national security”;

• Expansion of racial profiling; and

• Passage of the USA Patriot Act.

We are in a period when our notions of freedom are being severely tested. If we are sincere in our beliefs that our rights and freedoms make us strong, then now is the time to rededicate ourselves to those rights and freedoms — to practice what we preach. If we have come to believe these rights and freedoms are to be practiced only at times designated as appropriate by government, then we have surely reached a sad and critical day in our history.

James Madison left us these prophetic words: “There are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” Over the past few years we have witnessed an enormous expansion of unilateral, unchecked executive power. Hostility toward labor rights and civil liberties undermine our democracy and weaken our national security. The passage of a Labor Bill of Rights would have been powerful statement about our democracy and would have strengthened our democracy and our national security. It would have been, and still is, the right thing to do.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) is a member of the Government Reform Committee.