Keeping the floodgates closed

Colleen Kelley wanted to start off on the right foot with the new president. So before the end of President Bush's first week in office, she sent him a letter requesting a meeting. The response was a staff-written note that Kelley said could have been sent to a fourth-grade class to explain, very simply, how the executive branch works. It was not exactly what the president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) had in mind.

Instead of accepting Kelley's peace offering, Bush signed a directive six days into his term that freed federal personnel officials from having to work with her and other union leaders who represented their employees. To Kelley, it was a shot across the bow. "He made it very clear he had no interest in working with unions," she said.

She has been at war with the administration ever since.

Kelley has never met with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney or any high-ranking administration official. And her initial offering of an olive branch has been replaced — out of necessity, she would say — with something more akin to a sword.

Her oversized office and swank conference room a few blocks from the White House are filled with photos of Kelley and former President Clinton "from the much better days for federal employees," she said. A credenza offers one tiny, triangular photo in which Kelley is standing next to Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card. She sidled up to him at a Republican fund-raiser in an attempt to schedule a meeting. It never happened.

And so Kelley battles on. She fights for the rights of workers in 30 government agencies, particularly the Internal Revenue Service auditors and customs agents who make up the bulk of NTEU's membership. In the past three-and-a-half years, Kelley has challenged the administration's attempts to transfer federal work to private contractors; to close IRS distribution centers and hire private tax collectors; to change workers' pay, appeals and bargaining rights within the Homeland Security Department; to give civilian employees smaller pay raises than members of the military; and to greatly reduce the federal workforce.

She has won some and lost some. "It's been frustrating at times because there's not the level of participation or decision-making that we were used to," Kelley said in an interview at NTEU's Washington, D.C., headquarters.

But in her fifth year as president of the union, which represents 150,000 federal employees and has 239 chapters nationwide, Kelley hardly views herself as a warrior. Instead, the 52-year-old Pittsburgh native sees herself as a would-be peacemaker, one who tries to find common ground between workers' rights and the federal government's needs. "I think we're seen — I hope we're seen — as problem-solvers and that we're reasonable and that we're looking at what's right for the government as well as for employees," she said.

So rather than argue that no one should be displaced by technology, Kelley has pushed the administration to retrain employees.

"I think the government has to move to be able to provide the services that taxpayers need," said Kelley, a former IRS agent. "They need to move toward technology, but they have to move with forethought.

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