The Department of Veterans Affairs this week unilaterally scrapped an Obama-era provision in their labor contract, stripping many of doctors and nurses of the right to have a union representative advocate for them at a hearing at which they are being disciplined or fired.
The effect, a union representing federal workers says, will be to make it easier to fire government employees.
The VA sent a “notice of repudiation” to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) on May 21 informing the union that the VA would no longer comply with this piece of the union contract, which has been in effect since 2011, calling it “null, void and unenforceable.”
The provision ensured that workers could have AFGE representation when they were called before either a Disciplinary Board or a Professional Standards Board — panels that determine whether a federal worker can be demoted, suspended or terminated.
VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour told TPM that the provision in question “interferes with federal law,” adding: “VA never should have agreed to it in the first place.”
“Federal Labor Relations Authority precedent clearly allows federal departments and agencies lawfully to repudiate a collective bargaining agreement clause that is nonnegotiable under the statute because the clause interferes with a federal law,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing in this case.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs — which currently has no confirmed permanent leader — is the second-largest federal agency, with more than 360,000 federal employees. It is also the largest integrated health care system in the United States.
Jacque Simon, the public policy director of AFGE, told TPM that she sees the move as a “shot across the bow” and expects the Trump administration to roll back more federal worker protections in the months ahead.
“This basically takes our collective bargaining agreement and just rips some pages out, taking away something that’s been in effect legally for many years,” she said. “These boards are life and death — whether your professional standards are certified and whether you have a job. Now you can’t have your union represent you at those hearings.”
The VA’s move follows the passage of a bill in 2017 that stripped away many due process rights for employees at the agency, making it much easier for the administration to fire them. The reforms, characterized by President Trump and many lawmakers as a way to oust high-level officials accused of wrongdoing, have over the past year led to a purge of rank-and-file employees for minor infractions.
Bills have been introduced by Republicans in Congress to replicate these reforms at other federal agencies.