President Donald Trump’s administration and Department of Veterans Affairs leadership are “attacking” VA workers, union leaders say.
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal employee union representing 700,000 federal and D.C. government workers, say VA leadership offered up a “sham proposal designed to gut worker protections, including attacks on whistleblowers, workplace safety and employee training.”
Contract negotiations between the administration, VA and 250,000 VA employees, one-third of whom are veterans, are underway this week. Union leadership overwhelmingly rejected VA management’s proposal, which included dramatic cuts to on-the-clock official time spent on union activities.
“Secretary Wilkie is making a mockery of the collective bargaining process to do the bidding of President Trump,” American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. said in a statement. “This is all part of the Trump administration’s strategy to force the VA to fail, thereby paving the road to privatization.”
Cox said that VA management’s proposal would eliminate entirely, or in part, at least 42 sections of the current contract, effectively stripping union workers of rights protected under law.
“Despite the attacks from this administration, the VA continues to offer the highest level of care for our nation’s veterans, and we are improving every day,” VA Council President Alma Lee said in a statement. “There is no justification for the administration’s proposal, which would gut our contract and make it more difficult for veterans to get the quality service they expect and deserve.”
In its own news release about the proposed collective bargaining agreement, VA leadership said its proposal was designed “to align with the statutory rights Congress provided to federal employee unions … while ensuring taxpayer resources are used first and foremost to benefit veterans.”
In addition to cutting on-the-clock union time, the VA also said its proposal would “empower front-line supervisors” and “streamline the hiring and job classification process” in an effort to reduce the time it takes to hire “by weeks or months.”
The proposal ensures the contact “doesn’t interfere with the VA’s ability to take action under the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act, the MISSION Act and the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act,” the VA’s news release said. Specifics of those measures were not included.
Union leadership said the VA MISSION Act, approved by Congress and signed into law by the president last year and set to launch in June, would weaken the VA through privatization and redirect taxpayer dollars to the private healthcare industry.
VA spokesman Curtis Cashour said VA privatization "is a myth that has been thoroughly debunked."
"VA has more employees than ever before and its budget is bigger than ever before," Cashour said in an email to Connecting Vets.
“If we're going about privatizing VA, we're not doing a very good job. (In) 2009, the budget was about $90 billion dollars. Today, it's close to $200 (billion). 2009, had about 250,000 employees, now have 370,000," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said previously.
VA leadership said the current contract favors union employees and undercuts veterans being served by the VA.
“It’s time for a reset in VA’s approach to labor-management relations,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement. "A reluctance to challenge the status quo produced the current agreement, which includes many benefits that favor the union rather than the veterans we are charged with serving. With VA facing thousands of vacancies, these proposals could add more than one million man-hours per year back into our workforce – a vital influx of resources that would make an almost immediate difference for veterans and the employees who care for them. These proposals make clear that service to veterans must come first in all that we do, and I look forward to working with AFGE to ensure we achieve that goal.”
“As a veteran myself, it makes me sick to see how little regard this administration shows to the workers who serve our veterans day in and day out,” AFGE District 3 National Vice President Phil Glover, who chairs the AFGE National Executive Council’s Veterans Committee, said in a statement. “VA employees deserve to be treated with the same respect we expect them to show the veterans they serve.”