Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., took the lead on the letter.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., took the lead on the letter. Cliff Owen/AP

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Lawmakers Accuse VA of Violating Bargaining Rules in Workforce Order Implementation

More than 70 House Democrats said the department must bargain with its union before it can implement President Trump’s controversial workforce executive orders.

A group of more than 70 House Democrats on Thursday warned Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie that if he moves forward with plans to implement the provisions of three controversial executive orders, he will violate federal labor law.

In October, a federal appeals court lifted an injunction blocking agencies from implementing the provisions of three executive orders signed in May 2018. Those orders seek to shorten the length of performance improvement plans to 30 days, exempt adverse personnel actions from grievance proceedings, streamline collective bargaining negotiations, and significantly reduce the number of work hours and activities union members can spend on official time.

Shortly after the injunction was lifted, the department informed the American Federation of Government Employees that it planned to implement the orders’ provisions, including “recovering” union-used office space, equipment and resources, and ending reimbursement of expenses for employees performing “non-agency” business, among other issues. But the letter noted that it would only implement these changes “upon completion of [the department’s] bargaining obligations.”

In November, the VA issued a press release announcing that it would soon cease reimbursing employees for “non-agency” expenses and approving official time to work on grievances. The department gave the union until the end of January 2020 to remove all union property from VA facilities and return government property to the department, a prelude to evicting the union.

AFGE said that between the lifting of the injunction, the VA has not sought to bargain over how the changes would be implemented, something that is required under federal labor law.

In a letter to Wilkie, 71 House Democrats, led by House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., expressed “very strong concerns” that the VA’s plan to implement the executive orders shirks the department’s bargaining responsibilities.

“The announced actions, if implemented, are in violation of the law and will harm basic rights of VA workers,” the lawmakers wrote. “The department has an obligation to bargain with organized labor prior to implementation, not after. However, VA has not engaged effectively with organized labor on the specifics of implementation.”

The lawmakers said they fear that the changes, if not done through the proper process, would severely hurt agency productivity and morale, particularly as the VA recently moved union contract negotiations with AFGE to impasse.

“Now, VA is moving to further diminish the rights and morale of its workforce and refusing to meet its very basic bargaining obligations prior to implementing major changes to working conditions,” they wrote. “These changes will have a significant impact on the entire VA.”

The VA did not respond to a request for comment.