Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., introduced the measure in the House.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., introduced the measure in the House. Cliff Owen/AP

New Bill Would Give Thousands of Feds Collective Bargaining Rights

Proponents say negotiations would help government provide better services.

Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate would like to give doctors, nurses and other health providers at the Veterans Affairs Department collective bargaining rights, introducing a bill to allow them to negotiate compensation and staffing levels.

Since 1991, VA’s medical professionals have been prohibited from bargaining over pay and staffing. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who introduced the measure in the House, said the change would allow employees on the ground to let management know when there were too few clinicians to provide high quality care.

“Thousands of VA nurses and health care practitioners are committed to taking care of our heroes,” Takano said. “We know the toll that our veterans have paid serving and defending our country, and it’s important that we do all we can to take care of them -- that includes giving the health practitioners in VA hospitals rights to negotiate their salaries and workplace conditions.”

Takano added the bill would reduce turnover and create a “more stable health care environment” for vets. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, introduced companion legislation in the Senate last week with Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.  

Recent efforts to reform the VA workforce have focused on stripping it of rights, not adding them. After the agency came under fire for widespread manipulation of patient wait time data, lawmakers from both parties came together pass into law a provision making it easier for VA to fire its senior executives.

Congress has continued its push to punish malfeasant VA employees, with proposals to expand the firing measure to all VA workers, ban or restrict bonuses and claw back pensions

Not surprisingly, the American Federation of Government Employees -- which represents thousands of non-medical professional VA employees -- supported the new bill, saying collective bargaining could help prevent the problems that caused the department’s scandal in the first place.

“To ensure that veterans get safe, quality care at every VA facility, our clinicians need an equal workplace voice to speak up for adequate staffing, safe schedules and other practices that affect patient care,” said J. David Cox, AFGE’s national president. “These rights are essential components of the department's commitment to increase accountability through greater whistleblower protections and regular feedback from front line employees.”