Workers from Denver-area Veterans Affairs facilities are speaking out against efforts by the Trump administration to weaken labor protections for federal employees.
Joined by local leaders and labor activists, members of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2241 rallied outside the headquarters of the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System in Aurora today, August 7. As contract negotiations between the AFGE and the administration continue in Washington, local union representatives are sounding the alarm about the possible implications for other federal workers across the country.
“If the administration is successful in breaking us, there’s a pretty good chance that the other unions will follow,” says Bernard Humbles, president of Local 2241.
Negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement for VA workers began in May, when Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie announced the administration’s contract proposal — which union leaders panned. The proposal would remove 28 articles from the previous bargaining agreement, which was signed in 2011, and substantially change others, including provisions that allow for so-called official time, which allows employees to conduct union business during work hours. It also eliminates or amends sections of the agreement concerning employee training, workplace safety, whistleblower protections and more.
Local 2241 represents roughly 3,000 workers in the Denver metro area, Humbles said, and 260,000 VA employees nationwide. But union members fear those numbers could fall if the Trump administration gets its way, increasing turnover and reliance on contract workers and reducing the quality of care for veterans.
“We’re already understaffed,” says Humbles. “Right now we have about 50,000 vacancies across the VA. Those positions need to be filled, and the contracting isn’t working very well. When they contract out, we don’t really get the bang for our buck that we need to.”
Little progress has been made in talks between the Trump administration and the AFGE, and the union has accused VA management of stalling tactics. In a letter to Wilkie on July 31, a group of 33 Democratic senators accused the administration of taking a "destructive approach" to bargaining and urged officials to return to the table and "negotiate in good faith."
"Negotiations are ongoing," VA spokesman Curtis Cashour said in an email to Westword. "AFGE has consistently fought for the status quo and opposed attempts to make VA work better for veterans and their families. Now AFGE is taking the same approach with its refusal to accept commonsense improvements to its collective bargaining agreement."
Attendees at Wednesday's rally included Representative Jason Crow, a Democrat whose district includes Aurora and several VA facilities, along with Democratic senate candidates Alice Madden, Mike Johnston and John Walsh.
"This president campaigned on fighting for the middle class, but he has gotten into office and done the opposite," said Crow. "We will not let it stand."
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The Trump administration has pushed to roll back labor protections for workers at multiple federal agencies, including the VA and the Environmental Protection Agency — and VA workers are worried that this could only be the beginning.
“If they do bust the union here, it’s going to be a ripple effect,” says Brian Utt, steward of Local 2241. “They’re going to go after other federal agencies, like the Post Office. If they get one, they’re going to try to get them all.”
In the case of the VA, workers say, the administration's assault on unions will also allow it to push for greater privatization of the department. Under Trump, the VA has sought to shift billions of dollars in funding for government-run hospitals to private providers.
“We need the community to support us and not privatize the VA,” says Humbles. “We’ve got to believe that’s the direction that they’re heading in. If they can break the unions, they can lay off employees, furlough employees and bring contractors in to do the work. There’s a lot of money to be made on the VA.”