WASHINGTON—In the middle of the worst epidemic to hit the United States in 100 years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has proposed virtually eliminating protections against contagious diseases from the union contract covering its more than 265,000 employees.
The VA’s Jan. 29 proposal would shrink Article 30, titled “Occupational Health,” from the four pages tentatively agreed on in the previous contract offer to less than one, according to a copy supplied to LaborPress by the American Federation of Government Employees’ National VA Council (AFGE NVAC). It deletes the opening statement — “The purpose of this article is to aid in the protection of employees from communicable diseases” — and the entire section on pandemics, which requires the VA to provide free immunizations and adequate personal protective equipment for workers, and give those who get the virus the option of telework or paid or unpaid sick leave.
It would also modify the section on general occupational safety, such as a requirement to provide first aid, to a promise to “promote safe and healthful workplaces.” It would replace the section requiring preventive services such as disease screening with a ban on “abusive, aggressive, boorish, demeaning, hostile, insulting, intimidating, lewd, profane, or threatening” language and behavior.
“We pointed out the irony of them taking out this section in the middle of a pandemic,” says Ibidun Roberts, a lawyer on the union’s negotiating team. “We have no idea if the VA is serious.”
AFGE negotiator David I. Cann, the union’s director of field services and education, calls management’s behavior “atrocious,” noting that one of the VA’s primary tasks is taking care of ailing veterans. According to the union, 121 VA employees and more than 9,000 veterans have died of COVID-19 complications, while more than 16,800 workers and 165,000 veterans have tested positive for the virus.
The VA’s press office says it “does not comment on management’s strategy for ongoing negotiations.”
Roberts says that when she asked VA negotiators why they wanted to take COVID-related protections and work arrangements out of the contract, their answer was that “the pandemic is fluid.”
The current talks are renegotiating a contract offer AFGE NVAC members overwhelmingly rejected. “It is our belief that our membership would vote to ratify an agreement bargained in good faith,” union President Alma L. Lee wrote in a Jan. 4 letter to the department’s labor-relations office, saying that management’s negotiating conduct had “failed to meet the bare minimum requirements of good faith.”
Four years of ‘no good faith’
Federal workers have had four years of “no good-faith bargaining,” says Cann. Donald Trump issued executive orders curtailing what their unions could bargain over, ending unions’ power to challenge workers’ dismissals or prevent them from being fired without “progressive discipline,” and eliminating “official time” for union duties on the job, which made it impossible for a shop steward to represent a worker in a grievance without using their own paid time off. Another order, issued in September, would have removed civil-service protections from thousands of professional federal employees and prohibited them from joining a union, but President Joseph Biden voided it on Jan. 22.
Trump also packed the Federal Services Impasse Panel, which can impose contract terms when one side declares bargaining has gotten stuck at an impasse, with what Cann calls “the biggest bunch of scoundrels and union-busters you can imagine.” In one case, he adds, the Department of Health and Human Services declared an impasse after one day of talks.
“Every agency knew they could get stuff taken out of the contract whenever they wanted,” Cann says. The panel sometimes imposed terms beyond what management had sought.
While President Biden’s Jan. 22 executive order instructed federal agencies to reverse Trump’s orders making it easier to fire workers and restricting bargaining and official time, his nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Denis McDonough, has not yet been confirmed by the Senate. Therefore, the VA negotiations are being handled by a mix of career officials and Trump holdovers.
The VA’s chief negotiator, Thomas Nagy, was not appointed until Jan. 12. AFGE says he “has a track record of working to undermine the VA’s union.”
The department also wants to revise the contract to make providing child care for workers discretionary instead of mandatory, says Cann, and on Feb. 3, it proposed getting rid of workers’ compensation.
He describes the management negotiators as uncommunicative, refusing to answer emails and questions; often ignorant about basic issues; and more fervently anti-labor now that Trump is gone.
“Did they drink the Trump Kool-Aid or are they taking orders from Trump holdovers?” he asks.
The VA press office said its management “will continue to review and identify required changes to support” Biden’s order.
Roberts says it’s “a little shocking” how enthusiastic the VA negotiators are about following Trump’s executive orders and not Biden’s. She says she hopes the Biden administration is “aware of what one of their departments is doing.”
The White House press office did not respond to requests for comment from LaborPress.
AFGE NVAC has contacted the Biden administration, but has not gotten a definitive response, says Cann. He says he doesn’t blame it for not taking action yet while it’s trying to deal with the pandemic and the economic havoc it’s wreaked, climate change, and protecting democracy after last month’s attempted putsch.
“We’re aware that we’re one of many issues,” he says.
He praises Biden for ousting the 10 members of the Federal Services Impasse Panel, all appointed by Trump, on Feb. 3, when eight resigned and two were fired. But he says there are still Trump appointees with an anti-labor agenda “burrowed in” at nonpolitical career positions at federal agencies.
“We hope the VA stays at the table and bargains with us,” says Roberts. “But based on their current behavior, I’m not optimistic.”