As the Biden administration reached a last-minute deal to avoid a strike by unionized railway workers, the Department of Veterans Affairs said tentative progress has also been made toward its first new labor contract in nearly a decade.
However, after nearly 14 weeks of negotiations, the department has yet to formally sign a single agreement.
The union said time has been spent waiting for the VA to return from private caucus and negotiate in good faith. The VA insists progress is being made.
“Although it is true the parties have not yet reached agreement on complete contract articles, tentative agreements have been reached on significant portions of every article that has been negotiated, and the parties continue to reach tentative agreements on proposed contract provisions at every bargaining session,” said VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes in an email to Federal Times.
Nearly a year ago this month, members of the National Veterans Affairs Council and department prepared to discuss a new contract following a July 20 settlement in which the department rolled back restrictions on union activity set by a trio of executive orders under former President Donald Trump. That settlement resolved pending litigation and set ground rules for new contract talks, which continue this month.
Twelve articles from the original 2011 contract reopened for discussions to outline parameters for employee performance awards, use of official time for union duties and worker safety, to name a few.
“We have some agreement, but substantively, the main points of all these of these articles, we don’t have agreement on,” said Bill Wetmore, NVAC executive vice president.
Many of the department’s proposals track closely to the Trump executive orders, Wetmore said, which collectively impeded unions’ employee representation at the worksite.
Since May, NVAC filed two national grievances against the VA, the most recent of which took issue with the department’s proposal to terminate existing local supplemental agreements.
NVAC also has two negotiability appeals pending at the Federal Labor Relations Authority after the VA declared several union proposals to be “non-negotiable.”
Union representatives said they countered that claim and provided sources from the Federal Labor Relations authority in which virtually identical proposals were found to be negotiable.
An arbitration hearing will be held in October. The NVAC is the largest bargaining unit in the VA, covering 283,000 workers and making up about 40% of the total represented by AFGE.
One union member on the bargaining team, who requested not to be named to protect his identity as a VA employee, said that the delays have been frustrating, especially in working for an administration that promised to be a union ally.
The previous contract was signed in March 2011 and will remain in effect until a new one is secured with the remaining 55 articles to be rolled over as they stand.
Federal Times previously reported in February that a White House Task Force issued a report outlining about 70 recommendations for promoting worker organizing and collective bargaining for both federal and private-sector employees.
“I intend to be the most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history,” said President Joe Biden in a 2021 speech.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.