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Another Bad Idea: Outsource Federal Lock
and Dam Operations

April 26, 2006

Bush administration attempts to outsource the operations and maintenance of dams and locks along America’s inland waterways are being met with a solid wall of resistance from union members and members of Congress.

More than 50 members of Congress have objected in writing to the Army Corps of Engineers’ plans to privatize thousands of jobs at the country’s 230 federal locks and dams.  They argue that the work of operators should be re-classified as “inherently governmental” under federal law, and therefore the sole domain of federal workers.

A bi-partisan bill soon to be introduced in the House by Illinois members Lane Evans (D) and Ray LaHood (R) would block a $1 million study of privatization of the jobs and enshrine operators as federal employees.

“These locks and dams are operated and maintained by skilled federal employees who each day exercise their discretion on behalf of the United States government,” said a letter to fellow members of Congress circulated by Evans and LaHood seeking co-sponsors for their legislation.  “It is their job to protect the safety, security and private property of American citizens, as they ensure compliance with the U.S. laws and regulations.”

That commitment was on display last August and early September, when storm waters from Hurricane Katrina seeped into New Orleans in the most tragic natural disaster in the United States in generations.  Members of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) were on the job at the IHNC lock in New Orleans – as federal workers are required to be – when it was discovered that contractors who were supposed to be manning a bridge over the city’s industrial canal had deserted their posts.   The operation of that bridge, the St. Claude Avenue Bridge, was vital to both evacuation and relief efforts.  The road was among the only dry passages out of town, and the waterway underneath was key to barges and other vessels bringing in materials to repair the broken levees.

The NFFE operators spent days raising and lowering the bridge under highly difficult conditions.  Because the electricity was out, they had to power up the creaky old gas-powered back-up system.  Each time they raised or lowered the bridge might have been the last time.  Then someone recalled that the nearby lock once powered the bridge, so the NFFE operators rooted through underground wires to rig the electric power back through the lock, which was working. 

“The bridge was fully operational so the city could continue to get the repair materials in,” said Randy Erwin, NFFE (a division of the Machinists) legislative director.  “What happened in New Orleans was a tragedy but it would have been worse without these guys.  They were heroes.”

That compelling story has been told and retold in congressional offices over the past two months, as a broad coalition of federal employee unions has lobbied members in favor of retaining a federal role for these workers. 

The privatization plan would affect an estimated 1,600 federal workers, about half of whom are IBEW members working on locks and dams in 23 states.  The labor coalition includes several unions who have joined forces to fight the plan on both the legislative and grassroots levels.

“Federal employees are being attacked by this administration,” said IBEW Government Employees Director Chico McGill.  “An injustice to one is an injustice to all.”

McGill said the money for the study could be much better spent in operations and maintenance of the locks.

The Army released a solicitation for bids to privatize the lock and dam duties last year.  At the same time, it launched an investigation -- which itself could cost around $1 million -- into the likely cost of outsourcing versus keeping the responsibilities within the government. 

In two comprehensive investigations over the past year, the General Accountability Office has found that outsourcing government function can have a net cost to the government.  The agency uncovered waste, fraud and abuse among Defense Department contractors who owed billions of dollars in unpaid taxes.

 “We maintain that the locking decisions made by the lock and dam operators inherently affect the safety and private property of U.S. citizens,” said a letter by the lawmakers to Army Secretary Francis Harvey.  “Any accident could severely damage the lock and dam sections of our critical infrastructure, which are vital to the United States’ economic and defense needs.”

Although Army Corps officials have insisted that privatizing these functions has no homeland security element, at one lock in Little Rock, Ark, IBEW members heard repeated security reports of a suspicious man taking photographs of the lock chamber, security gate and barricades.         

“The critical, sensitive nature of operating and maintaining our navigational locks and dams is of paramount importance to this nation,” the members of Congress wrote in their letter.  “The workers who perform these functions must continue to be government employees.  Therefore, we recommend you cease working toward a competitive contracting process and reclassify the duties and responsibilities of lock and dam operators and maintenance personnel as ‘inherently governmental’ functions.”


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