Union: VA Continues Stonewalling Contract Negotiations Despite Biden Order

In the two weeks since President Biden signed an executive order instructing agencies to work collaboratively with labor groups, the VA has continued Trump-era tactics against its largest union, AFGE says.

Officials with the union representing thousands of Veterans Affairs Department employees said that the department’s negotiators have continued to stonewall efforts to reach an agreement on a contract in recent weeks, despite President Biden’s executive order unwinding Trump-era workforce policies.

During the Trump administration, agencies across the federal government were accused of so-called “surface level” bargaining, in which management would come to the bargaining table but refuse to engage in actual negotiations. This often took the form of take-it-or-leave-it proposals, or a refusal to answer questions about proposals.

Ibidun Roberts, an attorney representing the American Federation of Government Employees’ National Veterans Affairs Council, said that two weeks after Biden signed an executive order rolling back former President Trump’s workforce executive orders and instructing agencies to work collaboratively with labor groups, VA management has failed to take any steps to implement the order in its negotiations with the union.

Last November, the Federal Service Impasses Panel issued a largely pro-management decision in the two parties’ long-running and acrimonious dispute. But on January 4, the union voted overwhelmingly against ratifying the contract, a move that triggered another 30-day round of negotiations before the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

This week, VA negotiators insisted that the 30-day negotiation period was coming to a close on Friday, despite the department’s initial unwillingness to even hold further negotiations in the first place, Roberts said. Negotiations did not resume in earnest until Jan. 21.

“When we failed ratification, the VA didn’t have a chief negotiator,” she said. “So we ate into our time because they didn’t name someone ... until Jan. 12. Once he was named, we asked them to extend our time, because although we are entitled to 30 days of mediation from the date that we gave notice [of failed ratification], they weren’t prepared. The answer we got was a somewhat hostile and emphatic ‘No.’”

Roberts said that the union has repeatedly asked the department about when they would like to renegotiate the portions of the contract that now conflict with Biden’s workforce executive order, but they have been consistently rebuffed.

“The executive order undoes a lot of what the [impasses panel] put into their imposition from November, and so we asked, ‘How should we handle that?’” she said. “You know, we’re here to bargain, and we can present proposals on official time and office space, and they say, ‘We’re not here to talk to you about the executive order.’ It was the most bizarre exchange.”

The Trump-era bargaining tactics continue to be deployed as well, she said.

“When they finally did come on board to bargaining, they just refused to answer questions,” Roberts said. “People don’t believe it when we tell them about it. We’ll ask questions about their proposals—let’s say it’s the pandemic section of the occupational health article—and they’ll sit and look at us and not say a word, and just actively ignore our questions. So we’ll try to fill the space and explain that we can’t prepare a counterproposal if we don’t know why you took something out ... and for several moments they’ll just look at us on the screen, because these negotiations are virtual, and they wouldn’t answer us.”

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for the union is the proposed contract’s section on occupational health. Contrary to the union’s proposal, which lays out a detailed and concrete guide for both employees and management to keep workers safe, including an entire section on workplace safety during pandemics, management proposed boilerplate language stating that the department will follow its own policies. And it added a provision stating that employees must “maintain a professional demeanor in the workplace.”

“You know, we’re in a pandemic right now,” Roberts said. “Our proposals don’t tie management’s hands or anything, they just say that they can waive requirements for telework, and if they send people home, they won’t be charged leave if they’re not sick. They’re just basic common sense proposals, but the VA wants to strike them entirely, and replace it with language that says that employees won’t engage in ‘boorish’ behavior or use insulting or profane language, or they’ll be subject to discipline. That’s what they think occupational health is. They’re just not serious about what we’re doing here at all.”

In a statement, VA spokesman Randal Noller said the department could not comment on the specifics of allegations derived from collective bargaining negotiations.

“While the VA does not comment on collective bargaining discussions, we are committed to actively engaging with our labor partners to best serve veterans.”