Union Accuses VA Secretary of Trying to Strip Workers' Rights in New Proposal

Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert Wilkie testifies during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee nominations hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert Wilkie testifies during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee nominations hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Union officials representing more than 250,000 Department of Veterans Affairs employees have flatly rejected management proposals for a major overhaul of the collective bargaining agreement, to include drastic cuts to on-the-clock official time spent on union activities.

In calling for the changes, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie is "making a mockery of the collective bargaining process to do the bidding of President [Donald] Trump," J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a union news release Friday.

Cox charged that Wilkie's "sham" proposals would eliminate entirely or in part 42 sections of the existing contract and effectively strip union workers, about one-third of them veterans, of rights and protections under law.

In its own news release Thursday, the VA said the proposed changes to the collective bargaining agreement, or CBA, are designed to improve medical care and worker accountability while "maximizing value for taxpayers."

The VA claimed that union employees are now spending "more than one million hours per year" of official time on union activities. The proposed change to the CBA would cut that figure to about 10,000 hours, the VA said, resulting in savings of $48 million that could be directed to medical care.

The VA release referred to the Office of Personnel Management definition of "official time," which is authorized under the U.S. Code, as "paid time spent by federal employees performing representational work for a bargaining unit in lieu of their regularly assigned work. In other words, official time is treated as work time, thus is funded by the American taxpayers."

The department also said that the proposed changes include unspecified measures to make sure that the CBA "doesn't interfere with the VA's ability to take action" in implementing the Mission Act to expand private-care options and the Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which made it easier to fire workers.

"It's time for a reset in VA's approach to labor-management relations," Wilkie said in a statement. "A reluctance to challenge the status quo produced the current agreement, which includes many benefits that favor the union rather than the veterans we are charged with serving."

Cox and other union officials charged that Wilkie's proposals amount to an attack on the workforce, which serves nine million veterans annually.

"This is all part of the Trump administration's strategy to force the VA to fail, thereby paving the road to privatization," Cox, a registered nurse at the VA for more than 20 years, said in the AFGE release.

"As a veteran myself, it makes me sick to see how little regard this administration shows to the workers who serve our veterans day in and day out," said AFGE District 3 National Vice President Phil Glover. "VA employees deserve to be treated with the same respect we expect them to show the veterans they serve."

In hearings of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees, Republicans have routinely cited the issue of official time as a factor in the VA's failures, such as the 2014 wait-times scandals at the Phoenix VA Medical Center.

Union officials, just as routinely, counter that by saying the attack on official time is a convenient distraction to divert attention from management failures.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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