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Why Veterans Affairs workers don’t trust the Trump administration

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A largely overlooked confrontation over economic justice and public health is unfolding inside the Trump administration – one that has far-reaching consequences for more than a quarter-million Americans.

For the last several years, the Trump administration has tried to illegally impose one of the largest union contracts in the country on 260,000 workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs, many of whom have risked their lives to serve veterans during the pandemic.

The terms of the contract and the VA’s bad faith negotiations are a flagrant attempt to weaken the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). Under Secretary Robert Wilkie’s leadership, the VA has demonstrated a blatant disregard for the wellbeing of its workers and consistently treated them as expendable. Yet none of this should come as much of a surprise.

When the COVID-19 crisis began, workers at VA facilities across the country raised the alarm about dangerous shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE). VA officials publicly denied the shortages, only acknowledging them once internal memos were leaked. More than 2,250 VA employees tested positive for COVID-19 in early May, and as of early June, 32 workers and 1,272 patients have died from the virus or related symptoms. 

Inadequate training and staffing, inconsistent policies around leave and telework and a vacuum of national leadership from Wilkie have eroded what little trust there was between those on the frontlines and those sitting comfortably in Washington, D.C. Now, as the country reopens, the VA is trying to avoid paying its workers hazard pay by claiming that they face no risk on the job.

This devaluing of VA employees mirrors the Trump administration’s approach to the new collective bargaining agreement. Instead of negotiating in good faith, the VA has deliberately forced the process into an impasse by offering a number of insufficient and outright illegal proposals.

For instance, the VA has submitted proposals that would give itself discretion to make unilateral changes to telework policies. In reality, this means continuing the VA’s fierce opposition to teleworking despite a global pandemic. In addition to costing taxpayers millions of dollars, the VA’s hostility towards telework has exposed employees who could work remotely to COVID-19. Meanwhile, evidence shows the removal of barriers to telework leads to improvements in performance.

The VA has also sought to make processing grievances against management even more difficult and to require the union to pay all arbitration expenses–which is illegal. VA proposals also demanded illegally that the union waive its right to bargain over terms and conditions of employment based on the VA’s own policies and future government-wide rules. The VA has even submitted proposals that would deny AFGE’s right to choose its own representatives for bargaining. Proposing unlawful union-busting is not negotiating, and that’s intentional.

All of this was done by design. By forcing negotiations into impasse, the VA put the fate of the contract in the hands of a Federal Services Impasse Panel, whose members are appointed by the White House but not confirmed by the Senate — stacking the deck so the Trump administration is the arbitrator of negotiations in which it is a party. The effort to impose a one-sided contract and undermine the VA’s union should be seen for what it is: an attempt to further the Trump administration’s long-standing goal to privatize the VA.

Amid a global pandemic, the Trump administration’s attempts to undermine not only the workers at the VA, but also the veterans who depend on the VA for health care as a result is inexplicable. This president’s lip service towards frontline workers is a slap in the face as he simultaneously seeks to privatize health care and leave workers vulnerable to this virus.

As the country begins to reopen, the way the VA treated its workers across the country during the pandemic and the way it has handled contract negotiations raises questions about whether Wilkie is the right person to lead the nation’s largest health care system at this moment.

VA workers’ goal is simple: to reach a collective bargaining agreement that provides safe working conditions and adequate staffing levels, the space and equipment they need to ensure veterans receive the best care possible, and mechanisms to protect workers from the whims of management.

At a time of unprecedented strain on our health care system, VA workers should be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. If only for one simple reason: because no one is expendable.

Alma Lee is the President of the AFGE National Veterans Affairs Council. Congressman Mark Pocan represents Wisconsin’s 2nd District.

Tags Mark Pocan Robert Wilkie Veterans Affairs

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