New Trump-Named Regime Guts Workers’ Rights, Refuses to Sign VA Contract

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

The new Trump-installed regime atop the Department of Veterans Affairs is illegally gutting workers’ rights there – rights guaranteed by laws covering federal workers – and refusing to sign a new contract with one of the agency’s two main unions, those unions report.

As a result, more than 100,000 workers face denial of their workplace rights while the Trump government executes arbitrary actions against them, the Government Employees (AFGE) and National Nurses United (NNU) add. And there’s no contract covering 11,000 NNU-represented RNs.

The administration’s actions against the VA workers specifically come against the backdrop of its larger anti-federal worker union crusade.

That crusade includes a Trump freeze on workers’ pay, attempted imposition of pro-management executive orders – since overturned in court – orders to agencies to submit “management plans” with significant pay and personnel cuts and overall GOP denigration of the nation’s two million federal workers.

And it includes the so-called “Mission Act,” which Trump signed in March, designed to make it easier for VA bosses to fire workers – by curbing appeal rights – while letting VA outsource more care to private providers who do not know veterans and their ills. That outsourcing is a key right-wing goal.

Trump’s Office of Personnel Management also denied workers use of “official time” to handle grievances and complaints, contrary to federal labor law, and threw the unions out of their small offices within agency buildings. Shop stewards must now defend workers on their own time and on their own dime. And a federal arbitrator overturned another OPM action, which killed opportunities for workers to improve their performance.

 

And even though U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in August threw out Trump’s anti-worker executive orders, several Trump agencies – including the VA and the Department of Education, run by ideologue anti-worker Secretary Betsy DeVos, a GOP big giver – are defying the judge, too.

Jackson called Trump’s edicts both illegal and unconstitutional, as they would deprive workers of their 1st Amendment rights to free speech, with members of Congress.

At the VA, AFGE reports Trump’s team will ban 430 union volunteers from being shop stewards as of Nov. 15. VA is trumpeting the return of those workers to full-time federal employment as one step towards easing a 45,000-worker shortage at VA hospitals and other medical facilities. Besides those vacancies, the VA has 342,000 workers caring for eight million veterans.

AFGE President J. David Cox summed up the whole scenario in two words: “Union-busting.”

NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN, used those same words, adding that taking away shop stewards deprives RNs of their ability to advocate for better patient care – or to blow the whistle on higher-ups who oppose it or cover-up inadequate care.

“This just isn’t a dangerous policy – this is breaking the law,” said Cox, a retired VA psychiatric nurse from North Carolina.  “The Trump administration and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie have committed a grave disservice to our nation’s veterans.”

Castillo said Wilkie “hugely overstepped his legal authority” by eliminating official time. RNs and other medical professionals use it not just to defend workers’ rights but to advocate best patient care practices, including safe staffing levels, she noted.

“This is the latest salvo from this administration in its prolonged and orchestrated attack on the legal rights of our nurses who are committed to providing the highest quality of care to those who served our country,” said Castillo.

“This administration attempted to usurp official time, and silence the collective voice of nurses by issuing presidential executive orders, but the courts found the administration had exceeded its legal authority. Now Secretary Wilkie is attempting to do the same thing. We intend to fight back against this illegal action.” Castillo did not say how.

"Removing access to this time is like asking the fire department to operate without firetrucks or a firehose – and the result will be just as disastrous for our veterans. Make no mistake, this is an attempt to silence the voices of VA employees at a time when such oversight is more critical than ever,” Cox added.

He reminded listeners that rank-and-file unionized VA nurses blew the whistle on VA management’s cover-up of refusal to care for vets in a timely manner – and that the unions had to then defend the whistleblowers against retaliation.

Two weeks before the latest uproar, Wilkie also threw out the new contract VA’s own bargainers reached with NNU, the union said. He had 357 objections, including 267 to clauses carried over from the previous NNU-VA contract, signed by Democratic President Barack Obama’s then-VA Secretary, Eric Shinseki, a former general.

The union petitioned the Federal Labor Relations Authority – the equivalent of the National Labor Relations Board for the nation’s federal workers – to review Wilkie’s move.

“Nurses are dedicated to advocating for their patients, and they are best able to do so collectively through their union. This is especially critical when it comes to our service veterans who are best cared for by the experienced VA nurses and their expertise in caring for our veterans’ unique, specialized patient care needs,” said NNU Co-President Jean Ross, RN.

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Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Uber Drivers Deserve Legal Rights and Protections

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

In an advisory memo released May 14, the U.S. labor board general counsel’s office stated that Uber drivers are not employees for the purposes of federal labor laws.

Their stance holds that workers for companies like Uber are not included in federal protections for workplace organizing activities, which means the labor board is effectively denying Uber drivers the benefits of forming or joining unions.

Simply stating that Uber drivers are just gig workers does not suddenly undo the unjust working conditions that all workers potentially face, such as wage theft, dangerous working conditions and  job insecurity. These challenges are ever-present, only now Uber drivers are facing them without the protection or resources they deserve. 

The labor board’s May statement even seems to contradict an Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that couriers for Postmates, a job very similar to Uber drivers’, are legal employees.

However, the Department of Labor has now stated that such gig workers are simply independent contractors, meaning that they are not entitled to minimum wages or overtime pay.

While being unable to unionize limits these workers’ ability to fight for improved pay and working conditions, independent contractors can still make strides forward by organizing, explained executive director of New York Taxi Workers Alliance Bhairavi Desai.

“We can’t depend solely on the law or the courts to stop worker exploitation. We can only rely on the steadfast militancy of workers who are rising up everywhere,” Desai said in a statement. 

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