Kiyoshi Tanno /

AFGE, VA Reach Settlement to 'Reset' Labor Relations

The Veterans Affairs Department has agreed to reverse actions taken to crack down on unions during the Trump administration, including compensating union officials for leave they took in the absence of official time and reimbursing the union for past office space and equipment rentals.

The Veterans Affairs Department and the nation’s largest federal employee union announced this week that they have reached a settlement agreement to restore labor-management relations to a pre-Trump administration status quo and commit to good-faith negotiations on a new union contract.

The American Federation of Government Employees announced the deal Tuesday. It effectively ditches all proposals raised as part of the union’s negotiations with VA over the past four years, and sets up new contract negotiations, which are set to begin early next year, with a limited reopening of 12 articles from the 2011 contract. VA also agreed to unwind its implementation of three now-rescinded anti-union executive orders signed in 2018 by President Trump.

The agreement also requires the VA to rescind by July 30 its controversial 2018 decision to bar all Title 38 medical professionals at the department from using official time.

Thomas Dargon, a supervisory attorney at AFGE’s Office of the General Counsel, said the agreement also includes a “comprehensive” deal to compensate union officials who took leave or worked after hours on representational duties that they otherwise would have done on official time and to reimburse union locals for costs associated with renting office space and equipment after the VA implemented restrictions on the union’s workplace access in accordance the Trump executive orders.

“We’ve established a claims submission procedure, where AFGE representatives will be able to submit claims and then VA will provide relief in two main categories,” Dargon said. “The first is compensation for representational duties that they performed either during periods of personal leave or in non-duty hours because of the VA’s implementation of the Trump executive orders, and the same process also applies for Title 38 employees. And the second big category is reimbursement of expenses that locals and other affiliates incurred to rent office space, equipment and technology, basically issues we’ve been fighting about for years.”

Additionally, union officials who were disciplined by the department for their use of official time will have those disciplinary actions rescinded and expunged from their records.

Dargon said that the deal to compensate union officials for the representational duties they performed while on leave or after work hours likely would have been an award the union received from a grievance AFGE had already won at the arbitration level and was pending appeal before the Federal Labor Relations Authority. But he was particularly excited that the department agreed to reimburse union locals for the cost of office space and equipment rentals.

“The issue of reimbursing us for office space and equipment is unique, in part because the executive orders from the previous administration were unique,” he said. “It’s damages that the union incurred because of those actions, and in some cases locals spent a significant amount of money to obtain resources that should have been provided under our [2011] agreement, which has remained in effect this whole time . . . I do think it could be a roadmap [for other unions and agencies] and I hope that it is. We’re encouraged by the positive steps that AFGE and the VA have made in the last few months and look forward to building the relationship in the years ahead.”

In a statement Wednesday, the VA confirmed the agreement, which will lead to the withdrawal of many different grievances and other litigation between the VA and AFGE, as well as the National Association of Government Employees, the National Federation of Federal Employees and National Nurses United, and the department said that “a unionized VA workforce results in a strong overall VA labor operation.”

“More than 79% of VA’s workforce are bargaining unit employees, and we are working to cultivate strong, lasting relationships with the unions that represent the population of the department’s union workers, so as to ensure world class service to veterans,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough in a statement.