A federal appeals court struck down proposed labor relations rules at the Department of Homeland Security yesterday, calling them "utterly unreasonable" and dealing another setback to President Bush's efforts to overhaul the way the federal government manages its work force.
Civil servants are closely monitoring the case to learn how much leeway the courts will give managers over firings, pay raises and union contracts. The outcome is likely to set the standard for reforms at other agencies, including the largest, the Department of Defense, where an appeals court ruling on similar changes that would affect hundreds of thousands of workers is awaited.
The courts have sided squarely with workers. Yesterday's strongly worded and unanimous opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld two earlier District Court rulings that found that senior officials at the Homeland Security Department could not "unilaterally" ignore a union contract at their convenience.
The three-judge appeals panel went even further, saying that in designing the personnel system -- called MaxHR -- Homeland Security Department officials unfairly limited collective bargaining to issues that dealt only with individual employees, such as penalties, firing and promotions. The appeals court concluded that collective bargaining "is of little moment if the parties have virtually nothing to negotiate over."
The Homeland Security Department was "going to be able to prevent us from negotiating on overtime assignments and shifts that employees will work," said Elaine Kaplan, an attorney for the National Treasury Employees Union, which spearheaded the legal challenge by a coalition of public employee unions.
Under the ruling, Kaplan said, the unions will retain their say "on the bread-and-butter issues that are really important to the people we represent."
Colleen M. Kelley, the union's president, said at a news conference yesterday that she will request a meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to discuss ways to change the personnel system. Similar overtures after defeats in lower courts, however, did not result in any yielding from the agency.
"DHS will be discussing the impact of today's ruling and potential next steps with the Department of Justice and Office of Personnel Management," agency spokesman Larry Orluskie said in a statement, adding that the original plan "remained critical" to the agency's mission.