BATTLE CREEK, Mich. — On May 27, labor contract negotiations began between the American Federation of Government Employees and the Department of Veteran Affairs.
According to the union, the talks have broken down since then due to the department's proposal to take away employees’ rights.
On Thursday, union workers at the V.A. in Battle Creek decided to do something about it and protest.
“We’re trying to level out the playing field to make sure that the employees have the basic rights,” said Kenny Cheek, AFGE union president, Local 1629. “We don’t want it to be more like a dictatorship. We want it to be more like a democracy.”
About a dozen union workers stood on the sidewalk on Dickman Road chanting "hey, hey, ho, ho - union busters got to go." They held signs that read "Save the V.A." and one AFGE representative put red tape over his mouth that has the word silence on it.
“We just began negotiations,” said Cheek, who’s worked at the V.A. for more than 20 years. “So already some of the things that were in the previous contract is being stripped.”
Cheek said under the current contract there are 66 articles. The department has proposed taking away 42 of them. Rights like grievances, time-off, and whistleblower protections are all in jeopardy, he said.
“It’s the workers who do the work and they’re the ones that gladly serve the veterans everyday,” Cheek said. “So we are here to support all the members and all the employees so we can serve the veterans at our very best.”
He said the health and well-being of veterans is their top priority. The union fears that the departments want to privatize the medical center, which the union believes will have an adverse affect on the vets.
“Sitting at a doctor’s office is not the same as being around other veterans and sharing your story,” Cheek said. “We have so many programs here, therapists and doctors that specialize in helping veterans (and) military illnesses.”
He said the medical staff at the V.A. know how to treat PTSD and depression because they know what veterans go through.
“Who serves veteran illness better than V.A.?,” Cheek asked. “Nobody.”
The V.A. in Battle Creek, on behalf of the administration, released the following statement, which reads in part:
“Whether through its condemnation of the MISSION Act or its efforts to repeal the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, 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. Here are the facts: VA is working to renegotiate its contract with AFGE in order to improve medical care, customer service, and staff accountability while maximizing value for Veterans and taxpayers.”
The statement says that the new contract includes a number changes like:
- Reducing taxpayer-funded union time for VA/AFGE employees from more than one million hours per year to 10,000 hours per year – redirecting more than $48 million per year back to direct services and medical care for Veterans
- Empowering front line supervisors
- Streamlining the hiring and job classification process – potentially reducing the time it takes to hire certain positions by weeks or months
- Ensuring the contract doesn’t interfere with the VA’s ability to take action under the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act, the MISSION Act and the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act
The AFGE believes that what the administration is doing is “union-busting.” The union said they will continue to protest until the contract negotiations are done.
“We want the employees to have good negotiated contract,” Cheek said. “If you take care of the employees, the employees take care of the veterans.”