Letter to the Editor

Union official questions industry's reasoning behind outsourcing

Contractors used to tout privatization as a means to save money. When that didn't work, they acknowledged in their push for "best value" that they might cost more but that they were somehow better. As contractors grew impatient with public-private competition, whether the process employed emphasized cost or quality, they embraced the Army's "Third Wave," which eschewed competitions entirely in favor of massive direct conversions.

Now, Stan Soloway ("Buy Lines: Straight talk about fed employees, competitive sourcing," March 24 issue) is trying out a sly variation of that theme: Wholesale, corporate welfare-style privatization should be encouraged because it is in "the best interests of federal employees."

In whose interest is it for federal agencies to give work performed by federal employees as well as the jobs of federal employees to contractors without public-private competition? Warfighters? No. Taxpayers? Certainly not. Federal employees? Judging by the strong support they have given to legislative efforts to hold contractors accountable to taxpayers and warfighters, clearly not.

So who really benefits when agencies "divest" functions, employees, and equipment to contractors, as has also been espoused by Pentagon officials? It just so happens that it is the intensely competition-averse contractors.

An Economic Policy Institute's report from 2000 established that contractors, particularly for lower-level jobs, provide inferior compensation. We appreciate that Mr. Soloway acknowledges that there is a pay gap between the federal sector and the private sector with respect to pay.

Unfortunately, Mr. Soloway confuses contractors with private-sector employers generally, when contractors are in fact merely a subset of private-sector employers. Contractors generally pay their employees less than both the federal sector and the private sector.

The American Federation of Government Employees has never contended that contractors always provide inferior compensation. Managers and top professionals working for contractors are often paid much more than their counterparts in the federal sector.

That is not true, however, for middle- and lower-level workers. The federal pay system reflects the public's view that when tax dollars are being spent, even lower-level jobs deserve decent pay and benefits -- and the higher-level jobs shouldn't necessarily replicate the extravagant salaries of high-flying contractor executives.

When I travel to federal worksites, my most enthusiastic greetings come from contractor employees, particularly those in information technology, who want to dedicate their lives to public service and become federal employees. Unfortunately, contractors' opposition to any effort to hold their firms accountable to taxpayers through insourcing reviews is holding these workers hostage.

Anybody who doubts the yearning of so many contractor employees to join the civil service should accompany me to the nearest airport and meet the brave and hard-working men and women who make up the security screener work force. They aren't just glad to be federal employees; they are committed to the mission of providing passenger safety for the flying public.

Their example has demolished the myth that private contractors, whose mission is the bottom line or profit, not safety, are equally good for the delivery of services.

Bobby Harnage

National President

American Federation of Government Employees

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