VA and AFGE: A Reversal of Fortunes?

The author says that AFGE’s PR campaign about a collective bargaining agreement with the VA is likely more hype than truth.

It has been reported that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has provided a proposal to renegotiate its collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

With the headline “AFGE Denounces VA’s Latest Attack on Workers, Veterans”, AFGE has opened a public relations campaign claiming that veterans and employees are the target of an insidious plot to privatize the Agency’s services to veterans. The press release claims that VA has given it 331 pages of proposals.

In a way, that’s true. If you look at VA’s offer, it does cover 331 pages but most of them contain struck out provisions of the old collective bargaining agreement.

Management’s Goals

As I read the proposal, some very clear management goals are evident. The proposal signals VA’s intent to:

Streamline the CBA’s reference to employee rights that exist and are comprehensively covered in regulations issued by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other Agencies that implement statutes covering the Federal workforce

Having bargained many federal sector contracts, I’ve seen unions seek to put as much regulatory language into a CBA as it can. The union claim was that such language was needed to inform employees.

I have come to believe that such demands were designed to make the union appear to have gotten great concessions from the Agency, to minimize the appearance that not much was gained in negotiation, but perhaps most likely, to hide how much of the CBA addressed union institutional rights and benefits. As an Agency chief negotiator, I rarely saw a situation in which a union would not trade an employee benefit away to get a union institutional gain.

If you don’t believe me, look at the number of grievances, unfair labor practices, negotiability appeals, arbitration exceptions and impasse cases involving institutional union issues as a percentage of the overall cases filed. There’s no doubt the union puts the union first in bargaining.

Give VA management more flexibility to assign, reassign, move, promote, detail, temporarily promote and generally manage the workforce more freely to meet mission needs

The old CBA, for example, had three pages of language on details which involve temporarily assigning an employee from one job to another. The detail/temporary promotion article is full of what I call “words to grieve by” such as “Details are intended only for the needs of the Department’s work requirements when necessary services cannot be obtained by other desirable or practicable means.” This language alone permits the union to challenge whether a detail is necessary or whether the supervisor was obliged to use some other way to get the job done.

An employee could require the supervisor to document the detail if it lasted from one hour to one week on request and mandated documentation if it lasted more than a week. VA had to notify AFGE of every detail weekly and negotiate if any “conditions of employment” were affected by providing notice to the union a minimum of 10 days in advance.

The supervisor had to go through a complicated effort to seek volunteers and select based, not on skills, but seniority. 

There’s a lot more, including a right for the local union to bargain added detailing procedures at the local level. In essence, the article made it so cumbersome to get a short-term need met, I’m surprised it ever did.  

Change the current system by which AFGE pays virtually nothing to represent employees including getting office space in hundreds of facilities, office equipment, computers, printers, and most importantly an estimated 500 VA employees or the equivalent number of employee hours paid exclusively to perform AFGE not VA work

I think the 500 employee union reps is likely a low estimate as official time use is almost always poorly reported.

I’ve asked this question before. Did the Congress of the United States intend that Federal employee unions such as AFGE be entirely subsidized by appropriated funds?

This leaves most dues payments subsidizing political, internal union building activities and, for at least AFGE, a large bureaucratic structure at the regional and national level.

Directly or indirectly, the taxpayer is paying for all this. In the private sector, employees who want a union pay for it. If Federal employees think a union benefits them, they should pony up for it as well. 

It should also be evident, that putting 500 employees or the equivalent of at least 1,000,000 manhours a year back to providing veteran services would dramatically improve VA’s mission accomplishment.

Help supervisors focus on getting the job done

I have some experience with VA supervisors. In 2013 and 2014, I conducted a training program for every manager and supervisor in VA’s Veteran’s Benefits Administration (VBA) all over the country. 

Wherever I went, I was told that AFGE used threats and intimidation as principal tactics against supervisors who were seeking to resolve employee problems. They were told to back off or face a barrage of grievances and EEO complaints.

Supervisors believed that upper management was frozen into inaction from fear of the union. Many told me that higher level managers advised them to back off as well for fear they would not be supported in such litigation or viewed as troublemakers.

I’ve conducted training for government managers for 45 years. I’ve heard such claims before, but the sheer number of supervisors and managers at VBA who voiced such concerns was staggering. 

The Agency proposals are a start, but rebuilding supervisor and manager confidence that they will be supported will take a much larger effort.

Don’t believe the hype

I read with interest AFGE’s May 6 press release cited above. It read like an announcement of the zombie apocalypse and, sadly, with about as much credibility.

As an example of the phony hype in the release, let’s look at an AFGE claim. 

According to AFGE’s press release, the VA proposals on dues withholding “Require employees to complete a lengthy and intimidating form every year in order to maintain their union membership”.

In essence, employees have to indicate that they understand their rights regarding dues withholding under Federal labor law. It appears that after all the claims that a lengthy contract educates employees, AFGE is unwilling for them to learn enough to complete eleven fairly simple questions.

Read them for yourself and decide. Here’s what the employee has to complete:

Section B – Authorization By Employee 

I hereby state that this Statement is TRUE and CORRECT. That I have been informed of my rights as a federal employee under 5 U.S. CODE § 7102, specifically: 

1. I have the right to freely decide whether or not to join the Union, and the law guarantees I may make that decision voluntarily and without fear of penalty or reprisal.  

Employee Initials: ____    

2. That if I decide not to join the Union, I am still covered by the collective bargaining agreements negotiated between the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and entitled to enjoy the benefits of the collective bargaining agreement (such as Union representation in disputes with management), despite not joining the Union.  

Employee Initials: ____    

3. I have been informed that if I choose not to join the AFGE, that I am not eligible to participate in Union elections, meetings, votes, or other Union activities. 

Employee Initials: ____

4. I have been informed that the AFGE may not discipline non-member VA employees. 

Employee Initials: ____   

5. I have been informed that if I decide to join the Union, I will undertake a legal obligation to allow AFGE to deduct, for a minimum of twelve (12) months, Union dues from my paycheck, and the Union may increase my dues without my consent. 

Employee Initials: ____  

6. I have been informed that my payroll deduction for Union dues will lower my take-home pay. 

Employee Initials: ____

7. I affirm that no Union official, representative or member has falsely represented to me that joining the Union is a requirement of my employment. 

Employee Initials: ____   

8. I affirm that no Union official, representative or member has falsely represented to me that joining the Union is required to enjoy the benefits of Union representation in disputes with management as well as other benefits of the collective bargaining agreement (also known as the Master Agreement). 

Employee Initials: ____   

9. I understand I may not cancel the deduction from my paycheck of Union dues prior to twelve (12) months from the day I join. 

Employee Initials: ____    

10. I have received no financial incentive or payment from AFGE to become a dues-paying member. 

Employee Initials: ____   

11. I have been informed that if I decide not to join the AFGE now, I may join at any time in the future. 

Employee Initials: ____   

I hereby authorize the above-named agency to deduct from my pay each pay period, or the first full pay period of each month, the amount certified above as the regular dues of the (Name of Labor Organization): ___________________________________________ and to remit such amount to that labor organization in accordance with its arrangements with my employing agency. I further authorize any change in the amount to be deducted which is certified by the above-named labor organization as a uniform change in its dues structure. 

I understand that this authorization, if for a biweekly deduction, will become effective the pay period following its receipt in the payroll office of my employing agency. I further understand that Standard Form 1188, Cancellation of Payroll Deductions for Labor Organization Dues, is available from my employing agency, and that I may cancel this authorization by filing Standard Form 1188 or other written cancellation request with the payroll office of my employing agency. Such cancellation will not be effective, however, until the first full pay period which begins on or after the next established cancellation date of the calendar year after the cancellation is received in the payroll office.  

Contributions or gifts (including dues) to the labor organization shown at left are not tax deductible as charitable contributions. However, they may be tax deductible under other provisions of the Internal Revenue Code. 

_____________________  ___________________________ 

Signature of Employee       Date (Month, Day, Year) 

Lengthy and Intimidating? Perhaps educational and cautionary is a better description.

Every statement in the form is true and statutorily correct. Like the rest of AFGE’s claims, this one appears hyperbolic.

Another claim is that the CBA is anti-veteran. The press release backs that up by saying that more than a third of employees are veterans. So, I guess the logic is that if the contract provides more time and flexibility to serve veterans it works against employees who are veterans. Really?

One thing should not be forgotten in all this. It’s a proposal that will be negotiated and I don’t think one needs a crystal ball to see mediation and impasse procedures in the future.

Everything resembling an opinion in the above is mine and mine only. 

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.