AFGE PPE rally

GOT THEM OFF THE STREETS: After the Trump Administration's open hostility to unions like the American Federation of Government Employees forced union members at the Veterans Administration in Las Vegas to stage protests to rally public support for them receiving personal protective equipment to deal with the coronavirus, the union says normal, productive labor/management relations have resumed under President Biden.

Two months after President Biden issued an executive order rescinding the anti-union directives President Trump aimed at Federal unions in 2018, the Veterans Administration has notified the American Federation of Government Employees that it's scrapped policies that permitted management to unilaterally impose wage contracts.

The AFGE initially had some success in the courts delaying the implementation of Trump orders that permitted the ejection of union officials from Federal premises and stripped shop stewards of the release time that ensured they were paid by employers while representing members.

Defied Employee Rights

But agencies like the U.S. Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Social Security Administration imposed the anti-union measures, reversing decades of Federal employee protections and due process. 

In a March 29 letter to the union, the VA restored official time levels for representation work, granted union officials  office spaces free of charge again, supplied the union with email accounts and equipment consistent with previous agreements, and reissued union officials parking spaces they lost during Mr. Trump's tenure.

The path for the VA's action was cleared March 5 when Acting Office of Personnel Management Director Kathleen McGettigan issued a directive stating that Mr. Biden's executive order supported union organizing and collective bargaining. She noted that the order stated that "Career civil servants are the backbone of the Federal workforce" and that it was "the policy of the United States to protect, empower and rebuild the career Federal workforce." 

Marlin Jenkins, AFGE's acting director for field services and education, said in a March 29 interview that the executive order restores the "balance" between management and labor that was "standard practice... for 30 to 40 years."

Trump Packed Appeals Panels

He said Mr. Trump had stacked the Federal Labor Relations Authority, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and the Federal Services Impasse Panel with political appointees who shared his belief that Federal unions hurt  efficiency and restricted management's efforts at reform.

"So, essentially they changed the rules of the game and then hired their own referees to call the game," Mr. Jenkins said.

He added that the AFGE was still pressing to restore grievance-procedure rights for VA physicians and nurses.

"As it stands right now, medical professionals don't have that same ability to represent themselves like some of our other employees," Mr. Jenkins said. "The Secretary of the VA has full discretion to make a determination on how to do it. And while they did a lot for us unilaterally by the executive order, which we appreciated, we are still asking for more consideration for our brothers and sisters who work in these professions."

Throughout the pandemic, officials from across AFGE's national network of 1,100 councils and locals have pressed for access to personal protective equipment, contact tracing, workplace protections, vaccinations, and transparency about agency death tolls with varying success.

Hindered Response

Last May, AFGE President Everett Kelley lamented, "This administration had taken away the ability of management and the union to work together to resolve issues," he said. "And I believe that if that had not happened, we would not have seen the extreme spread of this infection."

The Veterans Administration, unlike most Federal agencies, maintains an online listing of the number of VA employees who have succumbed to the coronavirus. Through the end of March, the agency reported 136 staff deaths, with 16  from New Jersey or New York.

In January during the transition to the new President, Linda Ward Smith, president of AFGE Local 1224, which represents VA employees, said, "Testing is still not available to members or employees who want it. As we know, asymptomatic people [can] spread the disease."

On that same call, union officials welcomed Mr. Biden's shift in pandemic policy, which included the issuing of an executive order mandating mask-wearing in Federal buildings and prioritizing "the safety of the Federal worker."

David Cann, who held the job that Mr. Jenkins has since assumed, asserted, "The VA took away the...right to personal protective equipment that was in the contract," he said. "They did that during the COVID epidemic when they admitted to the Wall Street Journal that they were lying about not having shortages. We have lost employees. Employees have died because of protections that were stripped out of these contracts."

Despite the significant progress made at the VA by the AFGE, Mr. Jenkins said the union was still fully engaged in reversing the setbacks it was dealt during Mr. Trump's tenure at the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Social Security Administration and the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency.

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