As a prototype for destroying collective bargaining protections for federal workers, the Trump administration, with the connivance of Congress, has attacked union workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
A union-busting bill, the VA Accountability First Act of 2017, initiated by Rep. David Roe (R-Tenn.), will destroy the basic rights of VA employees. The bill was passed on March 17 by the House vote of 368 to 55 and on June 6 by the Senate vote of 93-3. Both votes include so-called “labor’s friends” in the Democratic Party.
The bill prevents union workers from using the full powers of the negotiated grievance procedure and binding arbitration to contest wrongful terminations, demotions and suspensions. It weakens these grievance processes to the point where they are almost meaningless. Workers are left with the “right” to file severely time-limited appeals with the Merit System Protection Board, which many workers refer to as the “Management Supervisors Protection Board”!
To add insult to injury, the bill now bars administrative law judges from mitigating any discipline penalties imposed by the VA, like reducing a firing to a five-day suspension, even if the judge rules that the penalty was too harsh or without merit. (Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, June 24, 2015)
Testifying before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox specified what VA workers will lose the following rights: the requirement of 30 days’ advance notice before imposing discipline, seven days to respond to the determination, having a representative present and obtaining an impartial third-party ruling. AFGE represents 230,000 VA employees.
In violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits politicization in hiring and political favoritism in the federal workforce, union advocates can now be targeted or framed up on spurious charges. The nebulous charge of “poor performer” can now be used as a weapon to fire an employee who may “offend” a supervisor who needs to be held accountable for aggressive abuse of power or other unjust behavior.
The National Federation of Federal Employees and other federal unions are denouncing this so-called “revitalization” of the VA as not only an attack on workers but also a way to privatize the hospital system through the so-called “Free Choice Act.” Adrian Atizado, deputy national legislative director of the Disabled Veterans of America, stated that “even with the Choice program, veterans overwhelmingly prefer to use the VA.” (AFGE Week in Review, June 16)
More union busting down the road
Right now, 76 percent of VA employees are union members. Previously, VA employees could only opt out of union membership on the anniversary of their hiring; now, they can opt out any time. The bill and other legislation targeting federal unions will also disproportionately impact African-American workers, who are 35 percent of the federal workforce and 30 percent of VA workers.
Upcoming legislation proposed by Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) will put “Official Time” — the time allowed union representatives to conduct union business while on the job without loss of pay — on the chopping block. Hice has an “innovative” way to destroy this protection: Union representatives will have their official time subtracted from their pensions when they retire. Official time is a precious benefit in both the public and private sector. It is used for negotiating contracts, addressing safety issues and being a strong, visible example that the union will protect worker rights.
Also on the congressional agenda is the “pay for performance system” in which a supervisor can pay higher wages to “good” performers and lower wages to “poor” performers. This amounts to a subjective determination of who curries the bosses’ favors.
But VA workers are not alone in their fightback. At Independence Mall in Philadelphia, Environmental Protection Agency employees joined protests on June 22 against cutbacks. Gary Morton, president of AFGE Local 3631, said: “Lead poisoning and soil poisoning — these are the unseen sources of pollution. The Trump administration does not believe in environmental justice and does not want your inner cities to be clean.” Federal workers, from the Social Security Administration, the VA, the EPA and the National Park Service, skipped their lunch break to join the protest. (Phillynews.com, June 22)
Federal workers need to rally together to hold more demonstrations and informational picket lines against this form of vicious capitalist austerity.