ARLINGTON, Va. — Teachers in military-sponsored schools overseas are among many federal workers up in arms over the Bush administration’s proposals to revamp the Pentagon’s civilian personnel system.

The Pentagon’s proposals “would take away many of our most valuable and basic rights as DOD civilians,” Federal Education Association President Sheridan Pearce wrote in an open letter posted on the union’s Web site. “The rights to collective bargaining and due process appeals would be lost under the Pentagon plan, as would most other protections from political favoritism and cronyism that the existing personnel system provides.”

But defense officials call such charges a gross misrepresentation and say that revising civilian personnel practices is essential to find and keep qualified workers.

“We are not proposing nepotism as being a permissible personal practice, we are not permitting — proposing cronyism as being a permitted personnel practice,” David Chu, deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told Pentagon reporters Tuesday. “We are respecting all the classic things that make the civil service good.”

Chu categorically denied union claims that the Bush administration is trying to politicize civilian hiring and retention, saying he is “outraged by it.

“The short answer is we aren’t putting politics back in the system,” Chu said. “This has probably been the most significant and, I think, malicious distortions in this debate.”

But the debate continues, and FEA, a Washington-based coalition of educators who work in Defense Department schools, is just one of the federal workers’ unions leading the charge against the National Security Personnel System proposal.

The measure, part of the 2004 defense budget proposal, requests a massive revision of the rules that govern the hiring and paying of all 746,000 civilian Defense Department employees.

One major provision is a change to employee’s collective bargaining rights.

Defense officials say they want managers to be able to negotiate directly with national union leadership on issues that affect employees who belong to a single union, instead of negotiating deals with each and every one of the 1,366 local unions who claim DOD employees as members.

Chu said that while the proposed changes “have been misunderstood in some quarters [as an attempt] to end collective bargaining rights … “Nothing like that is intended — really, permitted — by the proposed statutory changes,” Chu said.

Contacted by telephone Wednesday, FEA’s Pearce said that he had not had a chance to review Chu’s remarks, but that the union continues to oppose “anything that would take the chance of eliminating [workers’] basic rights.”

Unions are also worried by what the American Federation of Government Workers, the federal government’s largest single union, says is the Pentagon’s intent to give the secretary of defense power to decide whether DOD civilian employees will have due-process protections and appeal rights or not.

The Pentagon proposal, “lets managers suspend, demote, or fire employees, but it doesn’t let [employees] go to [third-party review boards] if they have evidence that these decisions were based on prejudice, politics, or a distortion of the facts,” according to a set of “talking points” on the AFGW Web site.

Most of the Pentagon’s requested changes to the personnel system are included in the defense authorization bill that passed the House, but the Senate version of the budget bill significantly softens or completely eliminates many key proposals.

The defense authorization is due to go to conference later this summer.

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