The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Federal Workers Win Again in DHS Court Challenge

by Brendan Coyne

Another judge sides with labor activists and federal employees' advocates continuing to resist drastic changes in government employment policies.

Oct. 11, 2005 – In a ruling hailed by federal labor unions as a key win for workers’ rights, a district court judge rejected a Department of Homeland Security effort to sidestep an injunction that stopped the Department from implementing a personnel system that would not protect collective-bargaining rights.

In August, District Judge Rosemary Collyer put a halt to rules changing long-standing DHS personnel policy on the eve of their implementation over concerns that the regulations violated the Homeland Security Act (HSA), the law that created the Department.

Federal employee unions hailed the decision and expressed confidence that the legal win would provide leverage for a similar challenge to a Defense Department personnel system that parallels much of the Homeland Security program.

DHS lawyers immediately moved to sidestep the ruling, filing a motion for clarification that asked Collyer to let most of the rules go forward. The request specifically asked that DHS be allowed to override provisions in negotiated contracts by citing security concerns.

Finding that DHS left "significant additional venues… to ignore its contractual obligations" to Department workers in its proposal, Collyer declined to alter her August 12 injunction and restated a court insistence that the Department negotiate an acceptable restructuring plan with labor groups .

Collyer’s original ruling found that DHS must preserve collective bargaining rights for employees as Congress directed in crafting the Homeland Security Act. The Department’s latest proposal continues to fail the test, she wrote in her opinion.

Organized labor and many politicians it supports fought to ensure that collective bargaining rights were incorporated into the HSA. Many pro-business lawmakers sought to restrict the rights of federal workers in crafting the act, which created the Homeland Security Department.

Since coming to power, the Bush administration has maintained that existing federal workplace rules are too expensive and inflexible to deal with present-day challenges. In cobbling together Homeland Security, the White House sought initially to restrict workers’ rights in a number of areas, most notably by reserving the right to waive collective bargaining protections if security demands require it.

Public employees unions contend that the DHS rules, which would affect nearly every aspect of the worker-management relationship and dismantle large portions of the civil service system, are ultimately a political tool designed to roll back workers’ rights and neuter organized labor. As written, the rules would significantly alter Department policy governing employee promotions, discipline and compensation. In addition, the new system would hand DHS managers greater leeway in staff-deployment decisions.

In a statement, American Federation of Government Employees lawyer Charles Hobbie called Collyer’s most recent ruling a "triumph," and reiterated an offer to negotiate changes. He called on DHS "to listen to its employees… rather than shutting them out of the deliberative process by eviscerating collective bargaining and employee protections."

Terming the proposed personnel rules "unjust" and "illegal," National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) President Colleen Kelley also warned that the Bush administration is seeking to destroy collective bargaining for federal employees. "Our longstanding offer to sit down and talk is still on the table," Kelley said in a statement. "The government’s continuing refusal to negotiate is proof that these illegal regulations were designed to eliminate collective bargaining."

At the beginning of the year, AFGE, NTEU and three other unions – the Federation of Federal Employees, National Association of Agriculture Employees and the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department – joined in the original lawsuit challenging the new personnel system. Friday’s ruling was the second in the case. Homeland Security spokesperson Larry Orluskie told the Associated Press that the Department is reviewing the decision.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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