President Joe Biden committed even before his inauguration to support collective bargaining efforts and reverse anti-union executive orders issued by his predecessor President Donald Trump.
Biden signed those promised changes into effect on his third day in office, but according to officials from the American Federation of Government Employees, not all agencies are making an immediate change to their collective bargaining approach.
The AFGE National VA Council accused the Department of Veterans Affairs of bargaining in bad faith in a Feb. 1 news release, due to agency proposals that they say undermine employee safety in the midst of a global pandemic.
“The bad faith the department has shown during these negotiations has been disrespectful and downright dangerous,” said AFGE NVAC President Alma Lee.
“We are still in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that has sickened thousands and killed hundreds of VA employees and the veterans they loyally serve, yet VA negotiators appointed by the Trump administration continue to undermine critical protections for the health, safety and legal rights of workers and veterans alike. AFGE NVAC will continue to fight for our members and hope that the Biden administration will make good on its promises to restore the collective bargaining rights of federal workers.”
According to the union, VA negotiators proposed a mere half page of provisions under the Occupational Health article — which governs cases of employee health, vaccinations and pandemic preparedness. That same article under the most recent 2011 collective bargaining agreement is just over four pages long.
Sections of that article include provisions guaranteeing health exams and surveillance for employee interaction with a major disease; a guaranteed occupational health unit for locations with more than 300 employees; agency justification plans for employee vaccine allocations; guaranteed care for minor or stabilizing treatment for on the job injuries; and no cost immunizations for a pandemic-level outbreak.
The agreement also guarantees that “employees shall be issued appropriate individual PPE as recommended by recognized authorities such as OSHA. There shall be sufficient equipment so that employees are neither expected to reuse the equipment unless it is designed for reuse nor shall they share such equipment.”
The union points to the VA’s Chief Negotiator Thomas Nagy, a career agency negotiator, as the source of the agency’s negotiating stance.
Biden’s choice to lead the VA, Denis McDonough, has vowed to work with VA employees once confirmed, though his nomination has only reached the committee hearing stage, so far.
Even prior to Biden’s inauguration, federal union leaders worried over the ability of Trump holdovers to impact early policy decisions, and those union leaders called on the president to be “very clear” with agencies on how they expect them to manage the workforce.
The government’s pro-union stance under Biden may also be subject to the specifics of the negotiation process at various agencies. Some agencies may still be in the midst of the contract negotiation process and may choose to simply pivot their proposals to reflect the new administration’s priorities.
But other agency negotiators may have already pushed to impose contract changes on their employee unions through authorities like the Federal Services Impasse Panel.
When contacted for comment, a VA spokesperson said: “While the VA does not comment on collective bargaining discussions, we are committed to actively engaging with our labor partners to best serve veterans.”
This article was corrected to accurately reflect Nagy’s employment status at the VA.
Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.