Unions seeking a voice in reforming workplace


WASHINGTON -- Federal employee unions are urging they be given a voice in the Clinton administration's plan to reinvent government.

Vice President Al Gore, who is directing the six-month National Performance Review to identify waste and inefficiency in the federal bureaucracy, has asked civil servants for tips on improving the way the government works.

And federal workers have responded to the request with piles of letters and hundreds of telephone calls.

Mr. Gore also is conducting a series of "town hall" meetings in government workplaces around the country to hear employees' thoughts and complaints.

"The vice president feels very strongly that federal employees are where the rubber meets the road," said Marla Romash, spokeswoman for Mr. Gore.

"Too often [they] have not been consulted when, in fact, they are generally the people with the best ideas," she said.

But while the workers have a role, the unions that represent them also want to get into the act.

John Sturdivant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal workers' union, said the organizers of the National Performance Review are not yet certain what role federal unions will play.

"They talk a lot about participation by employees, but they don't talk a lot about participation by federal employees' unions," despite the unions' strong support of Mr. Clinton during the campaign, Mr. Sturdivant said.

He recently met with Mr. Gore to discuss governmental reform, bTC and the vice president seemed interested in many of his ideas, particularly a proposal to decrease the worker-to-supervisor ratio, Mr. Sturdivant said.

But it remains to be seen whether unions will be an integral partner in the reform effort, helping develop policy from the earliest stages, he added.

Ms. Romash described the role of the unions as "difficult to quantify. We certainly welcome their opinions and their ideas and their views."

She added that Mr. Gore's meeting with Mr. Sturdivant "reflects the commitment the vice president has to seek information from as many different sources as possible."

Janice Lachance, an AFGE spokeswoman, said union participation is vital if the administration is to get "the big picture."

While employees' letters and comments point out problems that affect them individually, AFGE can advise the vice president's team on issues such as streamlining the costly employee litigation process and eliminating the duplication of personnel in different agencies, she said.

To address the broad problems in the federal workplace, "you have to look at an organization that's in the business of doing that," Mr. Sturdivant concurred. "You can't get policy from comments or hot lines."

Spokeswomen for two other federal unions, the National

Treasury Employees Union and the National Federation of Federal Employees, said those organizations are developing ideas to present to the review group, but they have not yet met with Mr. Gore or other panel members.

Mr. Sturdivant said he also intends to meet with Labor Secretary Robert Reich in an effort to interest him in making government "the model employer."

The federal workplace already is a proving ground for progressive policies such as flextime and locality pay, the union official said.

To help make the case for its proposals, such as labor-management workplace advisory committees, AFGE is considering hiring a policy adviser -- "our own in-house policy wonk," Mr. Sturdivant said.

"It's important to have someone inside your organization viewing it from the academic approach, someone who talks in their language," he said.

But in the meantime, Mr. Sturdivant said, "We've got to remember, whether they are Republican or Democrat, they're still our employer. And as long as we work for them, we'll have problems."

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