Members of Congress weighed in on the contract negotiations between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Federation of Government Employees June 5, calling on the agency to improve what they say are “anti-labor policies” outlined in the new contract.
The VA proposed a new contract with AFGE May 2, which VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said would “reset” the VA’s labor management practices, which favor the unions rather than the veterans they are charged with serving.
But the 128 House representatives who signed the June 5 letter, led by Reps. Anthony Brown, D-Md., and Donald Norcross, D-N.J., contend that the new contract is designed to emulate practices that have already been overturned by a district court judge.
“We believe the VA may be acting to precipitate a breakdown in negotiations by insisting on proposals that are similar to specific provisions of executive orders 13836, 13837 and 13839. Such proposals make it appear that the VA is seeking to circumvent the order of the United States District Court that enjoined many provisions of the executive orders,” the Congress members wrote.
“Furthermore, beyond conflicts with the enjoined executive orders, we are alarmed that the VA’s initial contract proposal is a gross departure from the current contract in place between the VA and AFGE. We are concerned that these actions will have a detrimental effect on veterans depending on the VA for medical care and other vital services.”
The union itself recently held rallies against the proposed contract, decrying its strict restrictions on official time and the removal of 42 provisions from the previous contract that they say are needed to protect worker rights.
But the members of Congress worried that the proposed contract would also limit medical professionals from reporting patient-threatening violations, bar employees from filing grievances against unjust disciplinary actions and remove employee ability to challenge payroll errors.
“As such, we strongly encourage the VA to bargain with AFGE in good faith, in full accordance with the established ground rules and with the objective of improving care for our veterans,” the letter said.
According to the agency, the new contract would help to address labor shortages in the VA workforce by ensuring that current employees spend most of their man-hours focused on the jobs they were hired for, rather than on union duties such as negotiating with leadership or representing their fellow employees in grievance proceedings.
“VA appreciates the lawmakers’ views and will respond to them directly,” said VA Press Secretary Curtis Cashour in a statement.
He added that the contract changes would reduce official time use, empower supervisors, streamline the hiring and job classification process and ensure that the contract doesn’t interfere with the agency’s ability to take action under recent legislation.
But AFGE leadership argues that the changes hurt VA employees and the veterans they serve and that the contract “sets up VA employees to fail.”
If bargaining between the VA and AFGE fails to yield an acceptable contract, the two parties may be forced to go through mediation assistance to find a solution, or they can appeal to the Federal Service Impasses Panel, which has the authority to impose a contract on both parties if they cannot come to a voluntary agreement.
This article has been updated to include comments from the VA.