Unions on pay systems: No, but yes

Despite their bluster, unions say they don’t oppose performance-based pay for feds

A House committee approved a measure in March that would kill the Homeland Security Department’s performance-based personnel system, and Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, immediately declared that the measure “put the final, and overdue, nail in the coffin” of DHS’ new pay system.

The rhetoric from federal labor unions about pay for performance is often like that — blustery and audacious. Two years ago, speaking as part of a Council for Excellence in Government breakfast panel, John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said, “Pay for performance is one of my big bugaboos. I think it is absolutely the wrong way to motivate a professional workforce.”

Despite such proclamations, however, union officials say they aren’t opposed to the concept of paying employees on the basis of their performance.

“We’re not against pay for performance,” said Mark Roth, general counsel at AFGE, which represents more than 600,000 federal employees, including 60,000 at DHS. “It’s not the principle,” he said. “It’s the way it’s been implemented.”

Roth and other union officials say where pay for performance has been deployed in the government, it has been without employee input, adequate training for managers who evaluate their employees’ performance, collective bargaining agreements and proper avenues for appealing appraisals.

“My own sense is that it’s all too easy to read the rhetoric,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service. He favors creating a performance-based culture across the government. “But the reality is that the union representatives want to create the same thing that we all should want, which is a work environment that permits their members and all federal employees to perform at their very best.”

Indeed, unions have helped implement performance-based pay systems in some cases. AFGE, for example, has negotiated demonstration projects that included performance-based pay mechanisms, and employees were “very happy” with the system, Roth said. “Where it’s pushed down their throats and it’s not funded, people are not very happy,” he added.

Government Accountability Office employees expect to vote soon on whether they want the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers to represent them. If GAO’s analysts unionize, it isn’t likely that they will want to abandon pay for performance, IFPTE leaders said.

Union officials often complain that performance-based pay systems are simply too complicated the way they are now structured.

“The simplest system is, you know who is good, you know who is bad, and everybody knows who the superstars are, and you give performance awards,” Roth said.
Under new Congress, more union cloutWith Democrats in control of Congress, federal labor unions have a bit more leverage when it comes to getting their issues on the legislative table. A case in point: In March, the House Homeland Security Committee approved a fiscal 2008 authorization bill for the Homeland Security Department that included an amendment to repeal the agency’s personnel system.

Leaders of the National Treasury Employees Union applauded Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) for introducing the amendment and praised her “unflagging leadership on this issue.” They also said Lee had acknowledged the union’s help in getting the language drafted and approved.

“It’s certainly true that with the change in control of Congress you have a renewed look by Congress at some of the [personnel reforms] that have already been enacted and also at some of the issues that still need to be addressed,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service. “Employees’ groups are getting a chance to have their voices heard in a new way.”

Stier also said Congress probably would have revisited some aspects of the new personnel systems regardless of which party gained control in the past election.
— Richard W. Walker

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