Union rallies against VA proposal

Group sees plan as stripping of rights

A provision of the master agreement between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the union representing 250,000 of its employees — including 780 at Van Zandt VA Medical Center — states that negotiations to amend the agreement can occur “only by mutual consent.”

So it would seem that the American Federation of Government Employees could easily defeat the VA’s ongoing attempt to eliminate 40-plus “titles’ of the master agreement deemed essential by the union simply by withholding consent.

But at a rally of Van Zandt union employees Wednesday to protest the VA’s renegotiation effort, a regional union official explained why that “mutual consent” provision doesn’t protect the AFGE from the VA’s plans to reduce by 99 percent the amount of time union representatives can spend helping fellow employees, or its plans to eliminate local grievance procedures or to make other changes that will allegedly “strip” workers of their “rights” — helping, he said, to create conditions that could lead to eventual privatization of the system.

The mutual consent provision won’t help the union because when the parties to the agreement can’t settle their differences, the matter goes for a decision to the Federal Services Impasse Panel — and that agency has been “stacked” with corporate types hostile to unions, according to Joe Corcoran, who represents the national AFGE in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

“We do not expect we will get a fair shake” from the panel, Corcoran said, as a handful of employees held signs up to passing motorists on Pleasant Valley Boulevard, while standing on the edge of a vacant lot at 22nd Street, having been bused there from the hospital grounds to avoid violating VA rules.

The union sees the VA’s proposed master agreement changes as a stripping of employee rights, but the VA sees those changes as a refocusing of the system to better serve patients and the nation’s taxpayers.

“(They) are designed to align with the statutory rights Congress provided to federal employee unions and VA, while ensuring taxpayer resources are used first and foremost to benefit veterans,” wrote VA press secretary Curt Cashour in a series of emails to the Mirror. “Service to veterans must come first in all that we do, and VA leaders are hopeful we can get to a point where instead of fighting to stop commonsense reforms, AFGE works with us to achieve them.”

The proposal to reduce “official time” by 99 percent — from a million hours a year nationally to 10,000 hours — will save $48 million a year, Cashour wrote.

That money that will go into direct services for veterans, according to Cashour.

The VA’s proposal to radically shrink the “official time” allotted for union representatives to help fellow employees with workplace issues, to eliminate local grievance procedures and to repeal other past negotiated concessions on matters like “telework,” child care and time off is part of a “long game” designed to undermine the VA system so that it can be privatized, Corcoran said at the rally.

The official time proposal would shrink the average time union representatives can spend with each employee per year from 3.53 hours to about two minutes, according to a Federal Times article.

The attempt to virtually eliminate official time violates the spirit of a compromise that led to the passage of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, with the union giving up a push for a “closed shop,” whereby all bargaining unit employees pay at least a “fair share,” if not actual union dues, in exchange for employees representing the union being granted time to spend on union business, according to Corcoran.

Official time is the “life­blood” of the AFGE operation in the VA, Corcoran said.

If the VA succeeds in eliminating local grievance procedures, employees having problems with management will need to go to Wash­ington, where the national office of the AFGE would need to represent them, which is “unrealistic” on both counts, AFGE local President Andy Scher­zinger said at the rally.

The VA is playing a “long game” to achieve eventual privatization — a multi-pronged game, aimed at the morale of employees, at their capacity to function effectively and at the creation of private-sector alternatives, according to Corcoran.

The effort comprises the renegotiation of the master agreement, which will damage morale; the continued existence of 45,000 unfilled jobs, which damages the ability to provide competent care, and last year’s passage of the Mission Act, which went into effect this month and promotes community care alternatives to the VA system, according to Corcoran and other union officials.

VA privatization “is a myth that has been thoroughly debunked,” Cashour wrote. “The VA is seeing more patients than ever before, has more employees than ever before, and its budget is bigger than ever before.”

The latest budget proposal calls for spending $220 billion to support 390,000 employees, in contrast to 10 years ago, when the budget was only $98 billion to support 280,000 employees, Cashour wrote, citing VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.

The union’s vacancy claims are unfounded, Cashour said.

“The best indicator of adequate staffing levels is not vacancies, but veteran access to care and health care outcomes,” he wrote. “By those standards, VA is doing well.”

He also said the Mission Act has been a blessing, not a curse.

It consolidated a patchwork of seven programs that provided care in the community for veterans, leading to “less red tape, more satisfaction and predictability for patients, more efficiency for our clinicians and more value for taxpayers,” Cashour wrote.

It allows veterans to choose care in the community rather than the VA for more reasons than before, such as when a 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.

It also allows patients access to urgent and walk-in care at participating community clinics, “a huge step forward in terms of convenience,” because they no longer need prior authorization from the VA, Cashour wrote.

The changes have led to an increase in patient trust, based on surveys, Cashour wrote.

Wilkie’s assurances against privatization would seem to suggest that the facilities of the VA are here to stay.

But the union’s fears aren’t that the facilities — or the employees would disappear, according to Corcoran.

Rather, it’s that they’d be simply turned over to private control, so the private sector could profit from them, through a national or regional management contracts, he indicated.

Corcoran remains optimistic about the outcome of the conflict with the VA, provided the union succeeds in its current effort to “activate” the membership — to awaken it to the threat and motivate it to act accordingly, through efforts to influence federal lawmakers and the public.