Van Zandt union protest rally set

Members angered by national VA plan to reduce rights

The union that represents 780 employees at Van Zandt VA Medical Center will hold a rally today to protest a national VA plan to negotiate master agreement changes that include a 99-percent reduction of on-the-clock time for union representatives to help members, other shrinkages of worker “rights” — including protection against whistleblower retaliation — and relaxation of rules for community care, which the union says could lead to eventual privatization of the VA health system.

“The administration’s contract proposal would turn the VA into a dictatorial agency in which you have no say in your working conditions and no right to hold rogue managers accountable,” stated a message from the American Federation of Government Em­ployees to members in connection with the rally along Pleasant Valley Boulevard at 22nd Street — one of many scheduled around the country since negotiations began May 27, according to local Presi­dent Andy Scherzinger. “(The VA) seeks to bust your union.”

“The proposals (for renegotiation of the 2011 master agreement) include a number of significant changes designed to im­prove medical care, customer service and staff accountability while maximizing value for taxpayers,” stated the VA in a May 2 news release.

The VA proposes to reduce union time for employees from one million hours to 10,000 hours per year, freeing up $48 million for direct services to veterans, according to the VA.

There are thousands of vacancies in the VA currently, and the reduction of union time would help eliminate some of them, according to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, as quoted in the news release.

The VA proposal also seeks to “empower frontline supervisors,” to speed up hiring and to ensure against interference with the VA taking action under the Vet­erans Appeals Improve­ment and Modernization Act, the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Pro­tection Act and the Mission Act, the news release stated.

“It’s time for a reset in VA’s approach to labor-management relations,” Wilkie stated in the news release. “A reluctance to challenge the status quo produced the current agreement, which includes many benefits that favor the union rather than the Veterans we are charged with serving.”

The proposed “union time” reductions would es­sentially restore cuts made last year by executive order of President Donald Trump, but largely nullified by court decision — which the federal government has appealed.

The Office of Personnel Management calculated that in 2016, such union time amounted to an average of 3.53 hours per year per bargaining unit employee, according to an article in the Federal Times.

The proposed new rule would limit union representatives to about two minutes of union time per employee per year, according to the Federal Times article.

Altogether, the VA propo­ses to effectively eliminate 42 of the master agreement’s 62 articles, Scherzinger said.

The 2011 agreement re­news automatically every three years “unless either party gives the other party notice of its intention to renegotiate,” the agreement states. Negotiations “may be conducted only by mutual consent …”

The Mission Act, one of the laws which the VA hopes to be able to better enforce with its proposed master agreement changes, went into effect this month.

It was opposed by the union last year, when it became law, for some of the same reasons the union opposes the VA proposal to renegotiate the master agreement.

The Mission Act allows vet­erans to choose care in the community rather than the VA, if the patient needs to wait more than 20 days or drive more than 30 minutes for primary care, mental health or non-institutional extended care; or needs to wait more than 28 days or drive more than 60 minutes for specialty care — or if the veteran and the referring clinician agree it’s in the best medical interest of the veteran to receive community care “based on defined factors,” a VA news release said.

The AFGE excoriated those provisions — plus one that creates “a corporate-style, private board that will make decisions about how and when they’d like to dismantle any VA facility in the country” — as a prelude to privatization.

They push veterans to­ward care “which is fragmented, inferior and lacks needed oversight,” according to the AFGE.

The vacancy problem — which neither the VA renegotiation proposal nor the Mission Act would help solve — is also part of the “indirect message” pointing toward privatization, based on its weakening of the VA system, according to Scherzinger.

AFGE represents more than 250,000 federal employees within the VA, according to the VA.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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