June 2003 - VOLUME 24 - NUMBER 6
An Interview with Bobby Harnage
Bobby L. Harnage, Sr. has served as president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest union for government workers in the United States with 600,000 federal and D.C. government employees, since 1997. Previously, he served as AFGE national secretary-treasurer, and national vice president for a district comprising most of the U.S. South. After a discharge from the Air Force in 1963, he worked as a civilian sheet metal helper at Warner Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, where he first served as a union steward and became involved in AFGE.
|Nobody knows how much the federal government spends on private contractors. There's no accounting for it.||
Multinational Monitor: How many federal employees are there and
how much does the U.S. government spend on services for either employees
Nobody knows how much the federal government spends on private contractors. Theres no accounting for it. Weve asked over the past five years to get some accountability of what is being spent on the service contracts replacing federal employees. We know there are four times as many contractor employees as there are federal employees, but we dont know what the cost is.
MM: The Homeland Security Act includes provisions to change how
employees are treated. What do those provisions do?
How these employees are hired and fired is to be re-written. Even how theyre promoted, their probationary period, their due process protections in case of adverse actions, disciplinary type actions, are to be revised.
What the Homeland Security Act did protect was existing union contracts, which will continue to be recognized for a specific period of time. Were not sure what will happen after that specific period of time.
Right now, were very much involved in what is called the Design Team, to determine how the personnel system is going to work within the Department of Homeland Security. Ive been very impressed so far with how open they have been to the unions presence on the Design Team and actually got the impression that they are glad were there. But that doesnt mean as this thing develops and moves up the chain that anything is going to come of it. We really dont know at this point how it will work out.
MM: What was the rationale for moving away from the historic civil
When the administration talked about it, they said it takes 18 months to fire someone. That was a lie. It may take 18 months for the terminated employee to get a final decision on his or her appeal, but it only takes 30 days to fire a federal employee, and theyre off the rolls during the appeals process. They were implying that the appeals process was the length of time it took to fire somebody. Neither the unions nor the federal employee wants it to take 18 months to get a decision. Theyd like to get one within a week, within a few days.
It is the bureaucracy that bogs that down. It was neither the law nor the regulations. The fact that they underman the Merit Systems Protection Board and dont properly fund it causes a backlog in cases; they dont have enough administrative law judges to hear those cases and move them on in a timely manner.
They said it took nine months to hire somebody. That may be true, but if Kay James [director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management] was pinned down, she would have to admit that it was neither the law nor the regulations that caused that nine months, it was the bureaucracy.
For example, when a supervisor has a vacant position, theyve got one of three choices. They can abolish the position, and get patted on the back for downsizing government; they can privatize it, and get patted on the back for meeting a quota; or they can fill it with a federal civilian employee. Only the latter one requires justification. And so before they fill a position, theyve got to go to the next level. Once that is decided, it goes up until it finally winds up at OMB [the Office of Management and Budget], the bean counters. Then their decision comes back down and gets approved. Now, that might take nine months, but its not the system, its not the rules or regulations, its the bureaucracy. Theres no reason for it to take more than 30 days, if that long, to hire someone.
The example that Kay James gave to show that they need flexibility was of a drunken border control agent who allowed a terrorist across the border. That was absurd and an insult to all federal employees.
We dont have drunken border patrol employees on duty. They depend upon one another to survive, so theyre not going to tolerate somebody or their buddy being intoxicated when their life may be at stake. But its not too smart of a terrorist that would sit around and wait for a drunken border patrol agent to show up at a particular point of entry when all they have to do is go about a mile away and walk across the border.
They could not come up with one example of where belonging to a union or a collective bargaining unit interfered with national security.
They kept talking about how they needed the ability to move people around. Well, they didnt have a problem with that on 9/11, when civilian employees secured all military installations not knowing where the next attack was coming from or who the enemy was. They didnt have any problem in World War II, the Korean conflict, the Vietnam war, the Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan and now Iraq with federal employees going into the zone to help support, supply and repair equipment for the military.
All the excuses and rhetoric that the administration used to justify the changes in the civil service were based on the ignorance of Congress and the American public on the environment within the federal government. We dont negotiate numbers, types or grades of employees and therefore our collective bargaining agreements would never interfere with managements flexibility to move people around. We have very limited negotiations even on such things as promotion. We cant negotiate provisions dealing with the hiring process. We can negotiate due process on adverse actions and firing employees, but thats to make sure they get a fair shake; it doesnt interfere with managements rights.
And under the current law, and the law at that time, when it comes to national security, if you have anything in the contract that interferes with national security, then in an emergency situation, it is void, and does not apply.
So all of their justifications for the changes were said as if they didnt have any of those rights. In fact, they had every one of them already.
It was just an effort to be able to hire people based on who you know, not what you know, and to bust unions.
MM: The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is now part
of the Department of Homeland Security?
But TSA employees are treated differently than any other group of federal employees. TSA management is now having some major problems and they cant blame it on the union, because they so far have totally refused even to recognize us.
Now that TSA has moved into Homeland Security, there seems to be some conflict in the law as to who will answer to who. Our interpretation is that in some cases Admiral Loy [undersecretary of the transportation for security] doesnt have to answer to or respond to Secretary Ridge. Ive asked the question: what happens now that TSA has folded into Homeland Security do they come under Homeland Security rules? They dont know the answer to that. We have got TSA people in the room on the Design Team, but there is no assurance that whatever we come up with will necessarily apply to TSA.
MM: Admiral Loy issued an order saying he would not recognize the
unions within TSA and youre challenging that?
MM: What is the basis of your challenge?
MM: The Pentagon has also tried to erode civil service protection.
Is it basically the same story as with the Department of Homeland Security?
The current GS system is designed to eliminate politics from the hiring and firing and the pay of federal employees so that they carry out their jobs in a neutral environment. We enacted the Pendleton Act over a 100 years ago because the federal government was so politicized and ineffective and really a rip-off to the American taxpayer. Theyre basically doing away with the checks and balances that keep this country safe and keep it strong.
Another issue is pay, with the Pentagon advocating pay for performance. The current GS system is a pay for performance system. They talk as if everybody gets a step increase every year. They dont. If you stay in the same grade, it takes you 18 years to move up to step 10. If you get promoted during that process, it will take you longer than 18 years to get to step 10. And every step increase is certified by the supervisor that the person has performed at an acceptable level of competence which means it is pay for performance.
The fact that most people get their step increase automatically is simply because the managers arent doing their jobs; or, because the gap between the federal sector and private sector is so wide and the federal employee is so underpaid, the supervisor feels guilty and goes ahead and gives the employee a step increase as a retention mechanism rather than as a performance mechanism. Managers can deny step increases. Whether they do or not is not a problem with the system, its a problem with the bureaucracy. They can take action against a poor performer, the fact that they dont is poor management, not a problem with the law or regulation.
This thing with the Defense Department is extremely scary. They havent provided any information on what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. Yet they have asked Congress to give them blank-check approval. What theyve done is talk in general terms and say, Give us the authority and then well tell you what we want to do. That makes it extremely dangerous.
MM: The Office of Management and Budgets Circular A-76 establishes
the rules for public-private competition for federal contracts. What would
OMBs new A-76 proposal do?
They say privatization will bring a 30 percent savings. That again is a lie, its absolutely not true. There is normally a 20 percent savings, not in the privatization, but in the competition. When the public and private sector compete for a contract, theres about a 20 percent savings. Right now, were winning better than 60 percent of those competitions. The competition helps eliminate the inefficiency of the government but this has nothing to do with the federal employees performance. Again, it is managements inefficiency. They could do what is called the most efficient organization every day, they could have done that 10 years ago, they could have done that yesterday, but theyre not going to do it until the employees jobs are in jeopardy. Then they come up with this most efficient organization.
The contractors actually want to do away with these efficiencies, because
they would like to get the job with all the inefficiencies built in. Then
they can eliminate them and have a windfall profit.
Were for competition. Theres obviously a savings there. We
wish there was a better way of doing it, but we cant make management
be efficient nor can any judge in the United States make management be
efficient. So we support competition, but let it be fair competition and
let it always be competed.
Then the contractor can come in and say, Look, we would like to add these bells and whistles, thats going to cost $10 million more, but we think its a much better product and youll be happier with it. Then the selecting official can say, I like that, you got it.
That doesnt mean the taxpayers really needed those bells and whistles or that they did increase the value of that product. It just means that that company was able to convince that supervisor either with the offer of a job or for other reasons.
Under the current rules, if the contractor says, We want to add these bells and whistles, the selecting official would have to say, OK, wait a minute, I have to see what it would cost to do that same thing in house, they were not allowed to bid on that. So he would go back to the workforce for a new bid. Then youve got apples to apples.
But with this best value approach, youve got apples to oranges. The public and private sector are not offering the same product, and so the deck is stacked. We could go down to winning only 10 percent of these bids as compared to the current 60 percent, just because of best value.
This is an opportunity for corporate America to rip off the taxpayers and charge $800 for a hammer, or $600 for a commode seat, and it cant be challenged because its in the selecting officials mind as to what is best value.
All of this privatization and all thats going on with this administration is nothing but paying off the contractor community for their political contributions.
MM: The new A-76 would also require privatization if managers
fail to meet deadlines to review jobs for privatization?
What kind of madness is that?
As many as a million jobs could be privatized under the new A-76 and other administration programs.
MM: Youve put forward the Truthfulness, Accountability and
Responsibility in Contracting (TRAC) bill as an alternative.
One of the things that cant be measured is the flexibility of the federal employee. If were making blue widgets, and management tells the employee instead of making blue widgets, were now going to make red widgets, its done. It is a very simple matter. Federal employees do it and go on about their business. But a contractor will say, Id be glad to make red widgets, but were going to have to sit down and renegotiate the contract and its going to cost you more money. The government manager doesnt have any choice, because their federal employees are out of the widget-making business.
Theyre locked in to having to depend upon the contractor.
MM: So privatization actually reduces government managers
If you look at a lot of these contractors, you will find a lot of people on the board of directors that are high-ranking military retirees.
Were trying to get some kind of accountability for all of that, and the contractor community and this administration is fighting us tooth and nail. The question needs to be asked: Why are you against accountability? I thought that was what privatization was supposed to be all about!
MM: So what exactly would the TRAC bill do?
MM: Is there a structure to enable federal employees to bid on
something that has already been contracted out, or is that impossible?
Ill give you an example. A couple of weeks ago I was at Kirkland Air Force base in New Mexico. I was touring one of the research laboratories at the base. The doctor who was in charge of the laboratories told me that they hoped to add an annex on to his laboratory. He said he has the money and he has the land, but he cant get the authorization for the positions. Now what kind of sense does that make? Heres a research lab leader twiddling his thumbs.
Its not a matter of cost, because they already have the money approved. Its not a matter of location, because its on a military installation right next to the existing laboratory. The problem is that it is new work, and historically federal employees arent allowed to compete for new work. And so hes sitting there waiting for approval. He could contract it out tomorrow, but he wants career federal employees, or a mixture of contractor and career federal employees, which is what hes got now. But hes being denied that through the bureaucracy, even though it is whats efficient and effective for the taxpayers. Thats the game thats played.
Its a very ridiculous game that is just ripping the taxpayers off everyday. Its not just about jobs for federal employees every federal employee pays income tax its about the efficiency of this country. For them to go out there and say they need all these laws changed for the efficiency of the government is absolutely absurd.
This is not about efficiency and this is not about saving money. This is about moving money from the federal sector to corporate political contributors.
MM: To what extent did the trends of contracting out, privatization
and undermining the civil service begin with the Clinton administration?
A lot of our people thought Bill Clinton was a problem because he was pro-contractor. They wish they had Bill Clinton back now, because this administration is all about corporate America, not about working people, not about good jobs.
MM: You think this is being driven primarily by just trying to
give favors to contractor contributors?
MM: To what extent do you think they are also motivated by trying
to destroy public sector unions political base?
They had been part of the union for over 20 years and it hadnt been a problem, but all of a sudden it was a problem for Mr. Bush. Then they saw the opportunity in TSA and saw the opportunity in homeland security, and now they see the opportunity in DOD.
This was easy pickings, because all it took was a change in the law or a stroke of a pen. In the private sector its entirely different, because to undermine unions they have to go state by state, community by community.
But Ill tell you right now that they bit off more than they can chew, and theyre beginning to realize that.
Were not going to go away. Weve been growing, and well continue to grow. This is our sixth consecutive year of increasing our membership, and if they think were going to go away, theyve got another thought coming.
Well find a way of doing business differently, and it probably will not be as amicable as it otherwise would be. I dont have to sit down at a table and try to informally resolve something if Im in an association rather than a union. I can just take you to court. Thats probably where were headed.
What the Pentagon wants to do is to be able to have all their big-shots retire, claim retirement pay, and then hire them back.
|They could not come up with one example of where belonging to a union or a collective bargaining unit interfered with national security.|
|Each year of the contract, the cost gets bumped up. By the end of the three-year period, it's actually costing the government more money than if they'd kept it in house. Nobody is looking back to see that, nobody's looking back for that accountability because they don't want to prove themselves wrong, plus they don't want to bring it back in-house.||The contractors actually want to do away with these efficiencies, because they would like to get the job with all the inefficiencies built in. Then they can eliminate them and have a windfall profit.|