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March 25, 2005
Federal Agencies Overhauling Their Personnel Practices

In what could become a model for the rest of the federal government, the U.S. departments of Defense and Homeland Security are undergoing major changes in their pay, promotion, and discipline policies, according to the Washington Post.

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The changes include scrapping the current General Schedule salary system in favor of a "performance-based system" that will give managers greater discretion in setting the pay of employees, writes Post columnist Stephen Barr, who covers federal workplace issues.

In addition, the appeals system for employee discipline would be streamlined. And, most controversially, the role of unions would be sharply curtailed.

Barr reports that the changes have been in the works for two years, with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld telling Congress at one point that the current rules have hindered his department's ability to recruit talented employees. He said managers often turn to private contractors or assign military personnel to perform tasks that would be better handled by civil service employees.

A coalition of 36 unions representing Defense Department employees is fighting intensely to stop the new system, charging that it's primarily meant to weaken employees' bargaining power. In February, 10 unions filed a lawsuit to block parts of the system that would reduce their bargaining powers.

The coalition also claims that the Pentagon has given no evidence to back up its claims that the National Security Personnel System, as the new system is called, will enhance efficiency or improve national security. The unions predict that it will instead become "complex and costly" and merely create "a new bureaucracy."

Barr reports that the unions in the coalition represent 50 to 60 percent of the Defense Department's civilian workforce.

The unions' efforts have included waging demonstrations at military bases where their members work. Mark Roth , general counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees, contended that at a dozen bases, union locals have been prohibited by base commanders or managers from holding meetings, putting up posters and circulating literature aimed at ensuring that employees knew that they could file comments in opposition to the proposed regulation.

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