VA Secretary Denis McDonough is under pressure to replace the department's chief labor negotiator.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough is under pressure to replace the department's chief labor negotiator. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A Union is Calling on the VA to Replace Its Chief Negotiator Following Trump-esque Bargaining Demands

Despite edicts from President Biden and VA Secretary Denis McDonough to establish more collaborative labor-management relations and empower labor groups, the department continues to push for a contract that closely mirrors the former president’s anti-union executive orders.

The American Federation of Government Employees has begun a campaign to pressure Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough to replace the man in charge of negotiating a new contract with the union over claims of intransigence and adherence to defunct Trump-era personnel policies.

AFGE’s national VA council has been in negotiations with the department since March on a new collective bargaining agreement, in what would mark the first major update since 2011. The parties had worked on a new contract during the Trump administration, culminating in a pro-management contract imposed by the Federal Service Impasses Panel, but the union failed to ratify it, effectively blocking its implementation until President Biden took office.

Since the earliest days of his administration, Biden has sought to “reset” labor-management relations in the federal government, rescinding a variety of executive orders and other administrative policies aimed at clamping down on federal employee unions and setting up a task force aimed at encouraging labor activity at federal agencies and in the private sector. And McDonough has repeatedly touted the need to make the VA a “model employer” and “encourage union organizing and collective bargaining.”

But union officials say that hasn’t trickled down to their negotiations with the department. Since March, AFGE has filed multiple grievances with the department over management proposals that they say are illegal and allegations that management otherwise engaged in bad faith bargaining. And despite having discussed eight of the 12 contract articles up for renegotiation, the parties have yet to come to agreement on any of them.

The union began a campaign this month to urge McDonough to replace the department’s chief negotiator, Kurt Martin. A petition circulated by AFGE had nearly 3,200 signatures as of Tuesday morning.

“You’ve said time and time again that employees are VA’s greatest asset, and we are your ‘union partner,’” the petition states. “Unfortunately, your negotiators at the bargaining table do not seem to share that same sentiment . . . Rather than implementing the workforce priorities of the current administration, VA negotiators have been working to preserve the status quo. Instead of working to expand our rights, your negotiators continue to advance proposals that weaken our contract and make it easier to fire federal employees.”

The VA did not respond to a request for comment or to make McDonough or Martin available for interviews.

Thomas Dargon, a supervisory attorney with AFGE’s national VA council who has been engaged in the negotiations, said that across the articles up for discussion, management’s proposals mark an “erosion of the current contract.” And in several instances, he said the department’s position closely mirrors the anti-labor policies of the Trump administration.

On the issue of performance appraisals, Dargon said that management has pushed for the replacement of 90-day performance improvement periods for underperforming employees with a 30-day “opportunity period” that can be terminated at a manager’s discretion. That plan is nearly identical to Trump’s 2018 executive order aimed at making it easier to fire federal employees.

And management negotiators have insisted on barring union employees from spending more than 30% of their work hours on official time, something Dargon said was only a slight increase over Trump’s plan to cap the use of official time at 25% of work hours and a significant decrease from the current contract, which places no cap on the practice. Both Trump-era policies were rescinded two days after Biden’s inauguration.

Dargon also bemoaned efforts by the VA to assert that matters like medical professionals’ monetary awards are exempt from collective bargaining obligations because of Title 38 of the U.S. Code’s provision making matters related to patient care nonnegotiable. In 2018, then-VA Secretary Robert Wilkie controversially banned Title 38 employees from using any official time, citing the same provision.

“We proposed provisions to bring greater fairness, accountability and objectivity to awards like retention incentives, like ensuring that nurses who receive the same annual proficiency rating receive the same award," he said. "But VA declared those proposals nonnegotiable and asked the secretary to take those matters off the table altogether. If you look at the most recent data that VA reports under the MISSION Act, it shows that nurses are in the top two occupations with the greatest number of vacancies. If we want to recruit and retain the best possible talent, the VA should be using all of its legal authorities to provide that pay where it’s deserved, and we want that to be done fairly and effectively.”

The VA and AFGE have a semi-annual labor-management forum scheduled for next month, at which Dargon said the demand to replace the chief negotiator will be “at the top of the agenda.”

“We’re here to reach agreement with the VA, but the VA has to meet us halfway,” he said. “We’re expecting the negotiators to do what the president and the VA secretary said should be done for workers and for labor unions. All the discussions we’ve had at the negotiating table, all of the real world examples we've provided and recollections of litigations that the parties have been in over the last decade are not getting through to them. Something has to change.”