Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Boned By My Union (Again)

Those who hoping for government personnel reform (including concerned federal employees like myself) will have to wait. Again. At issue are DOD and DHS' proposed pay-for-performance reforms. Those not down with government reform (everyone), might ask what is pay-for performance? The pay-for-performance system is actually a pretty sensible reform that allows federal managers to actually choose an employee's salary from a range of dollars according to how well they've done on the job. Sounds simple and noncontroversial, right? Wrong.

In a 77-page decision, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ruled that the Pentagon's National Security Personnel System (NSPS) fails to ensure collective bargaining rights, does not provide an independent third-party review of labor relations decisions and would leave employees without a fair process for appealing disciplinary actions.

"Taken as a whole, the design of these regulations appears to rest on the mistaken premise that Congress intended flexibility to trump collective bargaining rights," wrote Sullivan, who noted that the new regulations "entirely eviscerate collective bargaining."

The ruling marked the second time in six months that a federal judge has stiff-armed the Bush administration in its ambitious plans to rewrite federal personnel rules to curtail the power of labor unions, more strongly tie pay raises to job performance, and make it easier to hire, promote and discipline federal employees.

The two court decisions mean the new systems at Defense and the Department of Homeland Security -- each more than two years in the making, and affecting nearly 800,000 civilian employees -- appear destined either for lengthy court appeals or time-consuming revisions. Also in limbo are the administration's plans to overhaul federal pay at agencies government-wide.

Yuck. And of course here comes the union gloating:

The American Federation of Government Employees and 12 other unions representing more than 350,000 defense employees sued in November challenging the new system. The unions argued it would gut collective bargaining and that Pentagon officials did not meet their obligation, spelled out in the 2003 law that paved the way for the changes, to consult with employees' representatives in crafting a new labor management system.

"This is a big win," said AFGE President John Gage. "I think the judge very clearly showed in his decision that this was not collective bargaining by anybody's definition."

I would like to say John Gage and his AFGE numbskulls do a spectacular job of representing whatever is the OPPOSITE of my interests. Pay for performance, or pay-banding as it's called by us feds, is so superior to the General Schedule in so many ways I can't begin to count them. A few key ones are that the GS is entirely based on seniority and longevity, so that you can only get raises and promotions by being around for humongous blocks of time, and also that often these raises (steps) are automatic and have little to do with any results achieved. Also, in "competing" for higher grades in the GS system, length of tenure always trumps all other factors for qualifying applicants. But there are a lot of other things. Pay for performance gives bosses the flexibility to give raises or not raises, and it doesn't have to be based on seniority. In the worst case that the boss does give it out based on seniority. . .hey, it's no worse than the GS!

The unions, in defeating these personnel reforms, have achieved an incredible victory in protecting incompetent and non-performing employees from any kind of accountability. I'm not making this argument to rip on all my fellow government employees. Most of them are hardworking people who do their jobs better. And evidence from pilot programs of pay for performance shows actually that most of them do better on that kind of personnel system in terms of pay and promotions than on the GS. Which is precisely the point. This is isn't about punishing federal workers, this is about making their bosses better able to reward them. In the few cases the system is used against them, it's an isolated incident and usually pretty deserved.

The unfortunate fact of it is that the Bush Administration has included what might be called (in shrill tones of exaggeration) "union-busting" measures in these personnel reforms. I think people should get a chance to appeal if their pay is lowered under the system, but for me that's less important than getting some kind of system like this in place as soon as possible because the negatives of the GS outweigh just about all the positives that come from what the AFGE does. And it's these measures that keep derailing the reforms themselves as the unions successfully again and again over lack of collective bargaining rights, sending the baby out with the bathwater. While that's a legitimate gripe, I think it's an equally legitimate gripe by most federal employees that collective bargaining itself isn't helping do much besides cement the awfulness of the GS and protect the incompetent. The unions themselves are also so against anything other than the GS, that they refuse to even be involved with discussions about pay-for-performance. I can hope personnel reform will happen one day, but as long as people like John Gage are involved it won't. And federal employees will suffer because of it.