Senate Veterans Panel OKs Restoring Bargaining Rights for Some VA Workers

WASHINGTON—Moving to close an injustice to workers, the Democratic-run Senate Veterans Affairs Committee voted 8-6 on party lines on Nov. 19 to restore some collective bargaining rights to some Veterans Affairs (VA) professional workers.

Major veterans groups and the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents VA workers, support the legislation.  The GOP opposed it.  Senate Republicans argued the measure would give the health care professionals the right to bargain over performance evaluations and other non-money issues.

The bill, S1556, would kill the ban on collective bargaining for VA employees “with respect to matters and questions regarding compensation of such employees other than matters and questions regarding rates of basic pay,” a panel summary says.

Sponsoring Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said his bill would restore collective bargaining rights to VA health care professionals, such as physicians and registered nurses, to bargain with VA over such things as overtime.  “VA medical professionals are not assured the right to grieve” management actions against them, unlike colleagues in the rest of the agency, Brown also told his colleagues before the vote.

“S1556 provides a long overdue fix to a gross inequity in the law that weakens the VA’s ability to attract and maintain a strong health care workforce.  The law in question also deprives veterans of full protection from improper and unsafe care,” AFGE said in a statement.

“We have been working for years to get these issues corrected,” said AFGE President J. David Cox, who just retired after decades as a VA nurse to be union president full-time.  By lobbying lawmakers, “We hope to gain significant movement on this issue.  It is imperative that medical professionals impacted have a fair voice at work. This arbitrary denial of bargaining rights to front-line personnel has to end,” Cox said.

The VA has an overly broad interpretation of the ban on collective bargaining for many of its workers, he added.  As a result, they can’t even bargain over routine matters.  The union has lobbied VA to solve the problem, but it’s drawn no response. “The agency has kicked the can down the road for too long on this issue,” so the union turned to the Senate panel, instead, Cox explained.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., speaking for the committee Republicans, said Brown’s bill goes too far.  The measure would let the doctors, nurses and others “bargain over their competence and performance,” he claimed.  “This could negatively impact care of our veterans,” Burr charged, though he did not say how.  But the Disabled American Veterans and other vets’ groups disagreed and backed S1556.