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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 Noel, 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.”
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer 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.