Lawmakers accuse department leadership of “anti-worker, anti-union” tactics.
This piece has been updated to include comment from the Veterans Affairs Department.
More than 30 Democratic senators are urging the leadership of the Veterans Affairs Department to end what the lawmakers call a campaign of “anti-worker, anti-union” tactics in the department's approach to negotiations with the American Federation of Government Employees.
In a July 31 letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and 33 other Democrats accused the department of taking a “destructive approach” in ongoing negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement.
“From the outset, VA has taken multiple steps to ensure the negotiations with AFGE do not succeed,” the lawmakers wrote. “The department refused to negotiate ground rules such as when and where to meet, or to pay for travel to the talks. In an unprecedented action, VA sent those decisions to an impasse panel immediately, clearly demonstrating that the agency had no intention of engaging in a productive contract negotiation.”
In addition, VA management has proposed eliminating 28 articles from the existing contract, as well as replacing 14 other provisions with “generic language about . . . following appropriate procedures in law.”
“In total, VA is proposing to effectively scrap 63% of the existing contract without any legitimate rationale for doing so,” the lawmakers wrote.
Democrats also accused the department of several other untoward tactics in negotiations.
“VA has also changed the members of its bargaining team, which is another clear delaying tactic,” they wrote. “Furthermore, your agency has also referred negotiations to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service after only 10 days. The talks were scheduled to continue [until] December, and the request for a federal mediator is an effort by VA to short-circuit negotiations on important topics.”
In May, Wilkie publicly announced management’s contract proposal, arguing that initiatives like significant cuts to telework, official time and topics eligible for grievance proceedings would improve veteran care. AFGE has argued that removing popular work-life balance programs and employee protections actually would have the opposite effect.
VA spokesman Curt Cashour told Government Executive that the department "appreciates the senators' concerns" and will respond to them "directly." He insisted that AFGE has been the party that has been intransigent in negotiations, not management.
"Whether through its condemnation of the MISSION Act or its efforts to repeal the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, AFGE has consistently fought for the status quo and opposed attempts to make VA work better for veterans and their families," Cashour said. "Now AFGE is taking the same approach with its refusal to accept commonsense improvements to its collective bargaining agreement."
Senate Democrats demanded information from Wilkie about whether the department’s tactics derived from direction or advice from officials in the White House or the Office of Management and Budget. Similar questions were posed to the Social Security Administration in relation to its negotiations with the Association of Administrative Law Judges, suggesting that Democrats are concerned that the Trump administration is mandating agencies adopt hardball negotiation tactics.