Trump Is Waging War on the VA's Union, and Workers Are Living in Fear

The biggest public sector union contract in the country could be a disaster without political intervention

Hamilton Nolan

Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images

As Don­ald Trump cam­paigns for reelec­tion by declar­ing his love for the mil­i­tary and its vet­er­ans, the union that rep­re­sents more than a quar­ter of a mil­lion Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs (VA) employ­ees says that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has cre­at­ed an atmos­phere of fear and retal­i­a­tion among the peo­ple tasked with tak­ing care of America’s veterans.

More than 250,000 VA work­ers are rep­re­sent­ed by the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees (AFGE), and the union says that the VA’s con­tract is the largest sin­gle pub­lic sec­tor union con­tract in the coun­try. Nego­ti­a­tions for a new con­tract are cur­rent­ly mired before a Fed­er­al Ser­vices Impasse Pan­el,” which is tasked with resolv­ing bar­gain­ing dis­putes. (AFGE also filed a law­suit against the pan­el itself, charg­ing that its anti-union pres­i­den­tial appointees were improp­er­ly installed. Regard­less, the union expects the pan­el to ren­der a deci­sion on its con­tract in a mat­ter of weeks). The bureau­crat­ic maneu­ver­ings sur­round­ing the con­tract are just the lat­est man­i­fes­ta­tion of a years-long cru­sade by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to crush fed­er­al unions — one that VA union lead­ers say is push­ing their mem­bers to the break­ing point. 

In These Times spoke to the pres­i­dents of three AFGE union locals, who rep­re­sent thou­sands of VA mem­bers across the coun­try. They paint­ed a pic­ture of an agency in which employ­ees live in fear of retal­i­a­tion from man­age­ment if they speak out about injus­tice in the work­place. And they say that the effects of a set of 2018 Trump admin­is­tra­tion exec­u­tive orders that dras­ti­cal­ly restrict­ed the union’s rights — in par­tic­u­lar by slash­ing the offi­cial time” pro­vi­sion giv­ing access to union rep­re­sen­ta­tives at work, and by kick­ing the unions out of their long­time office space inside VA build­ings — have weak­ened the VA itself and made work­ers’ lives hard­er, even jeop­ar­diz­ing safe­ty in the midst of a pan­dem­ic. The real­i­ty for VA employ­ees is quite dif­fer­ent from Trump’s rhetoric about valu­ing vet­er­ans above all. 

Keena Smith, the pres­i­dent of AFGE Local 2192 in St. Louis, says that the Trump administration’s orders have evis­cer­at­ed the union’s last con­tract, strip­ping out health and safe­ty pro­vi­sions and whistle­blow­er pro­tec­tions, and severe­ly cut­ting back employ­ees’ rights to fight back against dis­ci­pli­nary actions. She describes a work­place in which VA employ­ees who process claims are ter­ri­fied” that they will be fired for fail­ing to meet unre­al­is­tic quotas. 

It’s def­i­nite­ly changed how we work and how we’re able to ser­vice our employ­ees. Over 80% of the employ­ees [here] are vet­er­ans them­selves,” says Smith, who is also a U.S. mil­i­tary vet­er­an. These attacks become per­son­al… this is the thanks that you give those vet­er­ans who have already done their time. You put on fear tac­tics, and stan­dards that are almost impos­si­ble to make.” 

Smith seems gen­uine­ly stag­gered by the con­tempt with which the admin­is­tra­tion has treat­ed her union mem­bers, who process ben­e­fit and com­pen­sa­tion claims for vet­er­ans. We lit­er­al­ly got evic­tion notices” for union offices in VA facil­i­ties,” she says, still incred­u­lous. They said, You have to get out or pay rent.’ What?” 

For the past three years, Lin­da Ward-Smith has led AFGE Local 1224 in Las Vegas, rep­re­sent­ing about 3,000 work­ers at a VA hos­pi­tal. Pri­or to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion tak­ing over, I can attest to you that man­age­ment and labor had cor­dial rela­tion­ships,” includ­ing week­ly labor-man­age­ment meet­ings to dis­cuss work­ing con­di­tions, she says. That has all changed since Trump’s exec­u­tive orders. Now, she says, man­age­ment is so unre­spon­sive that it has left many of the union’s mem­bers dispir­it­ed and ques­tion­ing the point of the union’s existence. 

We’d hear rumors like, the union isn’t here any more, there’s nobody for us.’ Espe­cial­ly when we got kicked out of the office and our equip­ment got tak­en away,” says Ward-Smith. Though she still tries to meet with man­age­ment as she can, I feel like I’m at their mer­cy. I have to some­times bite my tongue and do things on behalf of the mem­bers. But now the man­agers feel empow­ered as if they’re Superman.” 

Christi­na Noël, a press sec­re­tary for the VA, says of the ongo­ing con­tract bat­tle, AFGE has con­sis­tent­ly fought for the sta­tus quo and opposed attempts to make the VA work bet­ter for Vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies. It’s no sur­prise that AFGE has tak­en the same approach with its refusal to accept com­mon­sense improve­ments to its col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agreement.”

For Bar­bara Whit­son Casano­va, who has led AFGE Local 2054 in Arkansas for two decades, deal­ing with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion was like wak­ing up in a for­eign coun­try.” As the VA has become almost com­plete­ly unwill­ing to work with the union unless it is legal­ly required to, a con­se­quence has been that the union is oblig­at­ed to use the legal arbi­tra­tion process to address minor dis­putes that in the past could have been solved with good faith dis­cus­sions. Casano­va says that before Trump, her local might have only filed one arbi­tra­tion case per year; now, it has 17 arbi­tra­tion cas­es in process, each one cost­ing the gov­ern­ment itself thou­sands of dol­lars to litigate. 

We feel like our Com­man­der in Chief has waged war on his troops,” she says. The staff is burned out and liv­ing in fear.” 

All gov­ern­ment employ­ees now have right to work” sta­tus, mean­ing that the union is oblig­at­ed to rep­re­sent them, but can­not make them pay dues if they don’t want to. Nor do the VA’s work­ers have the right to strike, by law (a right that not even pub­lic sec­tor union lead­ers are will­ing to spend the polit­i­cal cap­i­tal to fight for). Those legal restric­tions, com­bined with the Trump administration’s bat­tle against labor rights of fed­er­al work­ers, have left AFGE strug­gling for ways to assert its pow­er. It’s a bat­tle not to give up and feel total­ly hope­less,” Casano­va admits. 

The VA’s union holds infor­ma­tion­al pick­ets and ral­lies to pub­li­cize its plight, and is enmeshed in law­suits against the gov­ern­ment, but it is unwill­ing to vio­late the law with more aggres­sive labor actions. Boxed in by reg­u­la­tions designed specif­i­cal­ly to lim­it its pow­er, the union lead­ers inside the VA say that the bal­lot box is their only promis­ing route back to nor­mal­cy. AFGE has endorsed Joe Biden, who has said he will roll back Trump’s exec­u­tive orders. Ward-Smith believes that every­thing hangs in the bal­ance on Elec­tion Day. 

If we con­tin­ue the way we are,” she says, the union will not be in existence.”

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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