Unionized workers at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have spent the past four years in a grinding workplace battle with a Trump administration existentially hostile towards unions representing federal government workers. Now, as negotiations draw to a close on their new contract — one of the biggest union contracts in America — the union says that the damaging hangover of the Trump years is still very much a reality.
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) represents more than 265,000 VA workers, meaning their contract has widespread impact on government workers across the nation. In 2018, Donald Trump signed a series of executive orders that drastically restricted the collective bargaining rights and power of the union, even taking away the union’s office space in VA buildings. Joe Biden rolled back those orders shortly after taking office. Yet the change of administrations (a top priority for AFGE, and a major victory for them) may not be enough to guarantee that the hostile contract negotiations that have already been underway for years will come out as the union hopes.
In early January, members voted to reject a proposed contract that they say was insufficient and one-sided. After that, a 30-day mediation period began. That mediation period expires this week. Because of some delays on the VA’s side in appointing a negotiator, the union is hoping for an extension, though it is unclear what a final timetable will be. What is certain is that after a process that has been marked by lawsuits, intransigence, political battles, and charges of bad faith, there are still significant outstanding issues to be settled.
“We’ve alleged from the beginning that the VA’s never really come to the table with a sincere desire to reach agreement. There’s been a lot of bad faith behavior,” says Thomas Dargon, AFGE’s acting supervisory attorney working on the National Veterans Affairs Council (NVAC). “What we’ve been asking for all along is for them to come to the table seriously.”
The fact that the bulk of negotiations were conducted under a different and much more hostile administration creates some murky possibilities for the contract’s future. Dargon says it is possible that the contract will go back to the Federal Services Impasse Panel, a government board meant to resolve such disputes — and earlier this week Biden summarily fired the board’s ten members, presumably setting the stage for a more labor-friendly board soon. There is also the matter of Denis McDonough, Biden’s nominee for VA secretary, who will certainly be more willing to work with the union, but whose confirmation date is still up in the air. AFGE is hoping that the transition process will happen in time to meaningfully improve the current contract.
“Surely new leadership could come in and set the right tone and work with the union as a partner,” says Dargon. Until the new contract is settled, the last contract, signed in 2011, remains in effect.
The VA did not respond to questions about whether its bargaining position has changed since Biden took office. (Last September, the VA gave a contemptuous statement saying that AFGE “opposed attempts to make the VA work better for Veterans and their families.”) But on the ground, change for VA workers is slow. Linda Ward-Smith, a registered nurse at the VA and the president of AFGE Local 1224 in Las Vegas, says that the crisis of the pandemic only strengthened her management’s determination to act unilaterally, without treating the union as a full partner. She says that she’s still having trouble getting the VA to provide a workplace safety plan as it moves employees back into the office, and that the VA has not provided enough Covid testing for its workers, restricting it to those who have symptoms. More than 120 VA employees have died of Covid, according to AFGE. Such health risks highlight one of the union’s biggest outstanding issues in the current contract negotiations: the fact that the VA is seeking to do away with large sections of the contract that provide occupational health rights to workers.
Ward-Smith says that, despite the fact Biden rolled back Trump’s executive orders affecting VA workers, her bosses have yet to implement the changes, saying they need to wait for further “guidance” before moving forward. “We’ve all still been in limbo. It’s almost like those executive orders don’t exist,” she says.
Nevertheless, Trump’s defeat has provided a ray of hope. For the past several years, the VA’s workers have been losing faith in their union’s ability to get anything meaningful accomplished for them, watching as its power was cut off by unfriendly leadership and aggressive anti-labor rulemaking. “Employees lose hope. It’s insane the treatment our employees were getting, because they felt they had no say-so,” Ward-Smith says. “I’m excited I can get back to doing the business I was put in this position to do.”
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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.