WASHINGTON—Union officials representing more than 200,000 civilian defense workers across the country issued a vote of no-confidence Tuesday in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and called on him to step down.
The resolution, the first time that federal workers have called for a defense secretary to resign, came in response to the Pentagon's decision to appeal a federal judge's ruling last week that blocks controversial new workplace rules for civilian Defense Department workers.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ruled Feb. 27 that the National Security Personnel System, which Congress approved in 2003, fails to protect collective-bargaining rights, doesn't allow for independent review of labor relations decisions and fails to provide a fair appeals process in disciplinary cases. The American Federation of Government Employees sued last year.
Proponents of the new system say it would provide the Defense Department with greater management flexibility. Critics charge that it's part of an overall Bush administration plan to weaken unions. The personnel system it would replace has been in place for 50 years.
The no-confidence vote came during the American Federation of Government Employees' annual legislative conference. The federation represents 650,000 government employees nationwide.
John Sweeney, the president of the AFL-CIO, the country's largest union group, attended the news conference announcing the federation's action. "These people have dedicated their lives to protecting the United States, yet the Bush administration wants to suppress their wages and deny their right to bargain collectively," he said.
Joyce Frank, a Defense Department spokeswoman for the National Security Personnel System, said she was unaware of the call for Rumsfeld to resign. She said the Pentagon would proceed with the plan.
"We will continue to engage in this collaborative process with the goal of implementing a system that meets our national security mission," Frank said.
Don Hale, the chairman of the federation's committee for defense workers, said the next step was to "gather enough bipartisan support in Congress to force Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to resign."
Hale said Defense Department workers didn't necessarily want Congress to repeal the new personnel system, they just wanted the Pentagon to abide by the process set forth in the new law, which he said called for collaboration between management and labor over key provisions.
A provision revamping annual pay increases is one of the most controversial. Currently, raises are granted automatically each year, based on seniority. Under the new system, raises would be granted to individuals based on performance.
"When we have people working on nuclear equipment, and the only way they can get a yearly raise is to make someone else look bad, is that how you want your nuclear equipment maintained?" said Hale, a union leader at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Brunson Edwards, the president of AFGE Local 62, which represents workers at the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia, said the plan could hurt veterans and senior workers.
"It would make it easier for them to get rid of our longest-serving employees and veterans," said Edwards, a Vietnam veteran who's worked at the supply center for 25 years.
The Pentagon said last week that it planned to proceed with plans to enroll 11,000 workers in the new personnel system in late April.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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