Local veterans, workers call out union busting at VA

Workers at the VA Hospital in Minneapolis, members of AFGE Local 1969, rallied for a fair contract Oct. 29, with support from activists in the local chapter of Veterans for Peace.

Local veterans and union members who staff the Minneapolis VA Hospital have been publicly calling out the Trump administration in recent months for understaffing in VA facilities and a string of attacks on VA workers’ rights.

Members of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 260,000 VA workers, have rallied and demonstrated relentlessly at the busy intersection of Hiawatha Avenue and Highway 62, near the hospital. Their events are drawing support from activists in the Minnesota chapter of Veterans for Peace.

Both veterans and workers say they are worried privatization is the ultimate goal Trump and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie have in mind.

“It’s just another effort to destabilize the VA because, ultimately, they want to privatize the VA,” AFGE District 8 Vice President Gregg James said. “There are trillions of dollars available if millions of veterans have to go downtown to ge their care.”

On the campaign trail, President-elect Joe Biden promised a course correction at the VA. He committed to begin filling the estimated 50,000 vacant positions at the agency and to restoring workers’ union protections.

But much of the damage done by Trump can’t be undone on inauguration day, workers say.

By executive order and federal rulemaking, Wilkie and the president have chipped away at workers’ bargaining power. The measures restrict workers’ access to union representation and limit their eligibility for union membership. A new proposal, James said, would bar unions from collecting attorneys’ fees from the government as part of a judgment for unpaid wages.

At the same time, contract negotiations between the agency and the AFGE have dragged on for what feels like “forever” to Christine Schoenbechler, a food service worker at Minneapolis VA.

“They won’t come to the table,” the vice president of AFGE Local 1969 said. “Wilkie is not making management negotiate with the union. They’ve just walked away.”

The agency’s contract proposals would make it easier for managers to fire VA workers and strip workers from having a say in shift changes, pay scales and more. Union members say the changes would make it easier to silence workers who blow the whistle on abuse, discrimination or unsafe conditions — of particular concern during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our benefits and protections, everything is at stake,” Schoenbechler said. “It’s unreal. It’s unbelievable. It’s like something I’ve never seen.”

Rather than engaging in a give and take at the bargaining table or with a federal mediator, James said, VA negotiators are pushing their demands to an impasse panel, stacked with presidential appointees.

“Normally, the impasse panel will only take a case after the federal mediator has made sure both parties have done their work,” James said. “It’s union busting, right out in the open.”

James said the AFGE urges supporters to contact their members of Congress and ask them to call on President Trump and Secretary Wilkie to get serious about contract talks at the VA.

“Because we’re on the verge of losing it,” he said.

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