updated 11/7/2005 6:47:55 PM ET 2005-11-07T23:47:55

A group of federal employee unions filed a lawsuit Monday against the Defense Department over a proposed merit pay system similar to a Homeland Security Department program that has already been blocked by the courts.

The American Federation of Government Employees, joined by nine other federal employee unions, filed the suit Monday in federal court in Washington, charging that the new personnel system significantly lessens employees’ collective bargaining rights.

The new plan, which would affect about 650,000 civilian employees, would essentially reward high-performing workers, give management more flexibility in work assignments and streamline hiring and disciplinary procedures. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said the changes are critical to improving the management of the department’s civilian work force.

A federal judge in August blocked the Homeland Security Department from implementing similar workplace rules, saying they would erode employee bargaining rights and allow agency officials to unilaterally declare contract terms null and void.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the agency has not seen the lawsuit yet, and had no comment.

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