WASHINGTON -- Eager to avoid paralyzing labor disputes, federal employee union leaders touted their first "new partnership" with at least one agency's top brass.
The General Services Administration and the three largest federal employee unions signed a resolution yesterday to begin regular dialogues with representatives of labor and agency managers.
GSA Administrator Roger Johnson, who left the private sector in July to join the government, told the labor leaders that the federal workplace needs to imitate the corporate environment.
"It has become clear to me that a level of distrust pervades too many working relationships within the federal government," Mr. Johnson said. He saw room for "faith, trust and understanding."
All this sounds good to the unions, who have complained about being shut out of too many decisions in past administrations.
John Sturdivant, who heads the American Federation of Government Employees, said the distrust is not just within the bureaucracy. American citizens don't often trust the bureaucrats to deliver needed services, he said.
"AFGE applauds GSA for being the first to begin the process of creating a worker-empowered, customer-driven agency that can effectively and efficiently meet the needs of the American people," Mr. Sturdivant said.
Although goals of better service cannot be measured for years, both unions and management are embracing Vice President Al Gore's Reinventing Government suggestions -- and rhetoric.
Robert Keener, who heads the National Federation of Federal Employees, said the GSA partnership can serve as a model for other agencies that can avoid disputes through "pre-decisional involvement."
Buyouts are key: Administration representatives assured senators yesterday that buyouts are the key to avoiding layoffs in the federal bureaucracy.
As the Clinton administration's buyout proposal speeds through Congress, top administrators testified that without the authority to offer as much as $25,000 to volunteers for early retirement, some workers will have to be handed pink slips.
Office of Personnel Management director James King told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee that early-out options are the "most humane way possible" to achieve the president's goal to cut the work force.
"There is no doubt that [firings] would be unavoidable" without congressional approval of the buyout plan.
Under the plan, agencies would be given as many as 90 days to offer the cash incentive. Each agency could choose which employees would be eligible for the plan, but that decision would be based on their position not on their performance.
"Employees may not be coerced to leave. . . ," Mr. King said. "Under implementing regulations that OPM will issue, agencies may not use any personal basis to grant or deny an incentive to any individual employee."
The White House has left so much for agency heads to decide after the plan is approved that congressional leaders are scratching their heads about what they are being asked to approve. Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, chairman of Governmental Affairs, and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., have both questioned whether the buyout plan can really hit the administration's target of eliminating 252,000 federal jobs in five years.
Mr. Glenn also wanted assurances that the buyout plan would cut out more managerial positions than worker slots, as the administration has promised. Ms. Norton asked for better calculations of whether the money Congress spends to give the cash handouts to early retirees will eventually be recouped in long-term savings as the bureaucracy shrinks.
Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., foresaw a scenario in which managers might get seduced into relying more on private sector contractors when they cannot get the extra staff needed to complete an agency's tasks.
"I just hope we don't fall into that trap," he said.