Unions, feds protest privatization

Sporting signs with slogans such as "Privatization, from the folks who brought you Enron," a vocal group of federal employees and union officials gathered at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., May 20 to protest the Bush administration's plans to turn federal work over to private companies.

The protest, just two blocks from the White House and in view of the Capitol, was called to denounce policies that the groups say put corporate profits ahead of public interest.

"Privatization of the federal government is something that would hurt many people for no justification," said Leroy Warren Jr., chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Federal Sector Task Force. "Privatization is the government-sponsored unemployment of its employees."

The rally was organized by a coalition of unions and other organizations, including the American Federation of Government Employees; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the NAACP; the National Federation of Federal Employees; the National Treasury Employees Union; and the National Association of Government Employees.

Protesters were there to oppose plans that would force agencies to give private companies the opportunity to bid on performing work that agency employees have historically done. The Office of Management and Budget's Circular A-76, which agencies use to determine what work should be open to competition, came under heavy fire at the rally.

Measures such as the Services Acquisition Reform Act, sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), would make it easier for agencies to hire private firms; other measures would give them incentives or mandates to do so. Many federal employees and their union representatives see little benefit in the administration's agenda. Companies are motivated by profit, not public service, they say.

The protesters represent one side of an issue that is growing more contentious as the administration and some congressional leaders push ahead with privatization plans. Information technology is one area that stands to be heavily affected, although the effort and its opposition are focused more broadly.

Not all federal employees share the unions' perspective, said Burl Keller, an industrial hygienist with the General Services Administration. "We should be doing a better job of measuring our performance," he said. "If we were measuring performance, we would have fewer individuals who were not performing up to standard."

Competition could ultimately improve the government's performance, Keller said. "Instead of protecting your rights to underperform, use your energy to improve your results."

Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, an industry group, objected to the protesters' choice of words. "There is not a single job slated for privatization. They are slated for competition," he said. "That's not a privatization agenda, that's a competition agenda."

Opponents want to ensure that their jobs remain in the government, yet do not want to be held accountable for how well they perform, he said. "How are you serving the taxpayers' interest?" he asked.

The Defense Department has had the most experience with competitive sourcing, as administration officials call it, and the number of federal employees who have ended up jobless is less than 10 percent, Soloway said. Some of them have gone to work for the contractors that have replaced them, he added.

Protesters also questioned the commitment of private contractors to protecting the public's interests. Leora Rosen, a Justice Department employee, said her office is responsible for gathering information on criminal suspects and others, maintaining information systems that contain the data and guarding it against improper release. Employees there have to disclose their financial information to ensure there is not even the appearance of a conflict of interest, she said.

"All this is about to change. With the stroke of a pen, the [Bush] administration has determined that what we do is commercial," she said. "All of these functions could soon go to a private contractor that says it will perform them at the lowest price."

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