IN A symbolic protest, union leaders at the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration are refusing to sign a four-year labor agreement that went into effect this week and deeply divided its membership.
In an Aug. 10 letter to SSA Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart, John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said that his signature was unnecessary and that, in light of "unpleasant" and "counterproductive" negotiations, he was declining to provide it.
"They usually have a little signing ceremony and party afterward with coffee and cookies," said Debbie Frederickson, a union leader for the agency's more than 1,000 field offices. "But they rammed this contract down our throats, and now they expect us to come and have a party with them? We decided to accept the contract, but we're not going to a party."
Mark Hinkle, a spokesman for SSA, said the agency has no problem moving forward without Gage's signature.
"The fact that it's ratified is the only thing that's important at this point," Hinkle said. "We're moving ahead with a contract that was mutually agreed upon."
Workers in four of the union's six divisions at SSA rejected the contract on its first go-round. When the two parties returned to the bargaining table, SSA officials threatened to offer another version that was considered inferior to the first one and asked for a reply from the union within days.
Only leaders from the four divisions that previously rejected the contract voted again, this time in favor. The union's general membership did not participate in that vote, sparking anger and charges of wrongdoing, particularly from employees in SSA's field offices.
"The idea of a union is to be a democracy, where each member has a voice," wrote Joseph Ponisciak of Willingboro, N.J., in a letter calling for an internal union investigation. "It's an interesting ratification process that goes from every member having a voice to one person deciding what is best for you. I'd also like to state [that] in my over 20 years in this union, I've never seen anything but a vote by its members."
Federal workers cannot strike. When management and employees reach a stalemate, disputes can be taken to the Federal Service Impasse Panel, a neutral third party.
Mark Roth, the union's lawyer, said that since President Bush fired all seven of the impasse panel's Clinton-appointed members in January 2002 and replaced them with more management-friendly officials, seeking a ruling from the panel would not bring employees relief.
The most controversial points in the contract include:
Replacing the pass/fail performance evaluation system with a tiered, three-step rating.
Ending rosters that rotate overtime opportunities among employees.
No longer guaranteeing "priority consideration" for minority applicants and those who repeatedly have failed to get promotions despite strong qualifications.
Frederickson said that officials have told the union they will delay implementing some provisions until a new performance evaluation system is in place.
Hinkle said that he does not know when the new ratings will be in place.
The Department of Defense said this week that it would move forward with plans to revamp its workplace rules this year despite a judge's ruling that virtually identical rules at another agency are illegal.
The aggressive stance likely will set up another legal showdown. U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled late last week that the Department of Homeland Security's labor management rules, which match those planned for the Pentagon, undermine unions' rights because they allow officials to void agreements at any time.
Charles B. Craven, a labor law professor at George Washington University, said that he is not surprised at the Pentagon's aggressive stance in light of the ruling. He said that presidents dating back to John F. Kennedy have tried to limit federal unions' rights, largely because they are viewed as a nuisance.
Federal unions "can't strike," Craven said. "They can't negotiate hours, working conditions or pay. Most of that is established by Congress. So they nitpick on procedural rules, like who gets parking spaces. They negotiate ad nauseam. It drives managers crazy, but [unions] don't have the right to bargain over more serious topics."
Federal officials long have argued that national security trumps workers' rights and that they need nearly absolute authority to fire, hire and re- arrange employees, especially at the Pentagon.
But Craven said that Collyer's ruling struck the right balance. Even if unions can bargain over only a few things, negotiations on those points need to remain binding and meaningful.
"She knows labor relations," Craven said of Collyer. "And she knows that unions aren't as disruptive as the government likes to think they are."
The Defense Department, which employs 746,000 civilians and is the government's largest agency, also faces a legal challenge to its rules. But so far, a judge has not moved to block them. At DHS, Collyer's ruling could be overturned on appeal, if the agency chooses that remedy.
Federal Workers can be reached at melissa.harris@ baltsun.com or 410-715-2885.