Unions tout members as inexpensive labor


WASHINGTON -- In trying to convince the Clinton administration that contracting out work to the private sector saps dollars from government coffers, federal employee unions are touting their members as a cheap source of labor.

The unions are casting the federal work force as a more cost-effective alternative than some contractors by pointing to a history of cost overruns and by claiming that the expertise of veteran federal employees has a significant dollar value that contract workers cannot match.

"Federal employees are a less expensive source of service," explained Josh Bowers, an attorney with the National Federal of Federal Employees, which has some 150,000 members. "They've become a fairly cheap source of labor."

Mr. Bowers and his union are sending this message to Vice President Al Gore's Reinventing Government Task Force, which solicited advice from workers on the future of federal service. Early reports of the task force's recommendations say that the administration may cut government costs by capping federal pay plans and trimming the work force through attrition.

But the unions have sought to promote their members as assets, not targets for budget cuts.

"They're there. They're available. They have the expertise," said Mr. Bowers.

While past Republican presidents moved many government tasks to the private sector, Mr. Bowers hopes the new administration will recognize the values of a more experienced federal work force.

"They tend to be of conservative minds, and they have important skills," he said of federal employees.

At Capitol Hill hearings in recent months, agency heads and federal investigators have presented evidence of lapses in accountability among private contractors in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense. The unions argue that those problems could be avoided with a greater reliance on federal workers.

Mr. Bowers pointed to a cycle of fraud among some contractors that is coming to the attention of reform-minded Democrats. "It's the bid-low, modify-the-contract and get-rich" scenario, he explained, in which contractors "low-ball the initial bid" and later convince the government that they need more money to complete the job.

John Sturdivant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, has been on a similar crusade. Last week, he fired off a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Leon Panetta, who backed reform efforts during his congressional career.

In the early days of the Clinton administration, Mr. Panetta called on each Cabinet secretary to report to OMB how much each agency or department relies on contractors.

A June 30 deadline was set for those reports, but as yet no word has come from OMB about the review.

Calls to Mr. Panetta's office were not returned yesterday.

In his letter to Mr. Panetta, Mr. Sturdivant complained that contracting out work promotes fraudulent practices that elude federal auditors and that the budget hides the total cost of these contracts.

"With these basic deficiencies, it has been very difficult to integrate the cost of contracting out into budget reduction efforts," he wrote. "This is not the way to control a $100 billion annual spending program," he added, reminding Mr. Panetta of the president's efforts to reduce the deficit.

Unions will find out soon if their arguments are convincing. Mr. Gore's report is set for release next month.

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