How AFGE’s new contract improves the lives of 300,000 VA employees, the veterans we serve

After more than five years of negotiations, our union – the American Federation of Government Employees National Veterans Affairs Council (AFGE NVAC) – and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have reached an agreement on a new contract that preserves and expands critical protections for nearly 300,000 VA workers and aims to expand access to care for veterans.

With this agreement, we’re within reach of a historic victory not only for our dedicated VA workforce — a third of whom are veterans themselves – but for all the veterans and communities we serve.

As the labor union movement in America enters a new era, this win is a testament to what can be achieved when workers unionize, mobilize and fight together for fairness, dignity and respect on the job.

Through years of tough negotiations and relentless anti-worker attacks across two administrations, AFGE NVAC remained steadfast in fighting to preserve and expand protections for VA workers. To no one’s surprise, the Trump administration initiated a pattern of bad-faith bargaining that led us nowhere at the negotiating table. Despite hopes for a new era of negotiations under President Joe Biden’s promise to be the most pro-labor leader in our nation’s history, VA officials continued to resist attempts by the union to reset the relationship and work together to secure a pro-worker, pro-veteran contract.

The turning point in our negotiations came in March, when a federal arbitrator ruled in AFGE NVAC’s favor and ordered the VA to cease its pattern of bad-faith bargaining once and for all, giving us the momentum needed to push these negotiations over the finish line.

Among our many victories in this new contract are crucial revisions allowing our union to combat staffing and hiring issues at the VA by streamlining the hiring process, providing greater clarity on job requirements and making it easier for employees to move between positions. Thanks to the unwavering dedication of our negotiating team, we were able to preserve many of the protections from the 2011 Master Agreement that was under attack by the VA, including collective bargaining rights, due process protections and grievance procedures.

These changes will fundamentally modernize VA hiring procedures — something that we desperately need to tackle the crisis of understaffing at VA hospitals across the nation.

This crisis is happening in communities everywhere and the impact on veteran care is increasingly unsustainable. A recent groundbreaking report by AFGE NVAC and the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute highlights alarming statistics around VA staffing, with 96% of VA workers indicating that their facility needs more frontline clinical staff, resulting in them feeling overworked. Because of the understaffing, workers are experiencing low morale, and an incredible 62% are even considering leaving their jobs. Without adequate funding and staffing levels, the VA will struggle to provide the high-quality care that veterans deserve – and more veterans will suffer.

Efforts to privatize the VA, close facilities and limit access to care for veterans have been rampant for decades. We simply cannot let this happen.

Our union is proud of the contract we secured and the changes it will usher into VA hiring practices — but we’re still grappling with ongoing understaffing, retention, and pay issues that adversely affect veterans’ quality of care. This new contract gives us much-needed hope for the future of veteran care after years of anti-worker attacks and bad-faith bargaining from the VA, and we should celebrate, but it’s going to take more support from Congress and the administration to achieve the quality of care that all veterans truly deserve.

For now, we celebrate this monumental win – but rest assured, our work on behalf of veterans is just firing up.

Alma Lee is the president of the American Federation of Government Employees National VA Council.

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