AFGE, VA contract negotiations stalled for months as parties await FLRA decision

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The way things seem to be going between Department of Veterans Affairs management and the American Federation of Government Employees, contract negotiations could outlast the pandemic. The president of AFGE Local 1224 in North Las Vegas, Linda Ward-Smith, discussed more on Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Ward-Smith, good to have you on.

Linda Ward-Smith: Hi, thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: All right, give us the status of negotiations as it stands today.

Linda Ward-Smith: Well, currently, we are not in negotiations anymore. We tried to negotiate a fair contract back in June of 2019. We started and we ended six months later, with us not coming to an agreement on about 30 of our articles in our contract, and management decided to take it to impasse. And right now, we’re waiting for a decision from the Fair Labor Relations Authority. And it’s more likely than not that they’re going to impose a management contract, which means that we did not negotiate fair as we should, according to the law. So right now we’re just waiting for a decision from the labor relations authority.

Tom Temin: Got it. All right, let’s go back in time a little bit – when did the old contract expire?

Linda Ward-Smith: So we have a rollover clause in the contracts, and it was negotiated in 2011. And it goes for like three years. Then after that it’s a rollover. So we’ve been rolling it over up until this point, and actually, it’s still an active contract because of a rollover clause. But Trump and his administration decided to open up the contract and start the negotiations to pretty much put us where we are today, so that they can gain control over our collective bargaining rights. And so that is what happened. And so now we are at the mercy of the Trump administration to tell us what rights we won’t have.

Tom Temin: You’ve mentioned there’s 30 clauses – an issue here that you disagree over. What are some examples of the types of topics or the types of clause object that you are at an impasse over?

Linda Ward-Smith: So right now in our contract, we have it laid out how the process as far as time and leave promotions, how discrimination or the equal employment opportunities will be, reasonable accommodations for our veterans or employees who are dealing with some disability issues, pretty much how leave is handled, tours of duties are handled. And the argument at the table was basically management just wanted to have a right to do what they wanted to do, and how they wanted to determine how those issues were handled. So they wanted it to be management’s control and management’s decision on how employees got promoted, or how tours were offered. Instead of allowing it to be fair and equitable across the board, it was just going to turn into a favoritism type of situation. And we were not going to allow it. And that is pretty much what got us to the impasse. Because everything that we introduced, or every article we had, they didn’t like it, because it gave employees their rights to ensure that they did not have discrimination when it came to those issues. And so that was pretty much the rubber met the road, they just did not want employees to have discretion. They wanted management have all of the decision-making. And we know that’s not fair.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Linda Ward Smith. She’s president of L 1224 of the American Federation of Government Employees, representing Veterans Affairs employees.And just the structure of the team that is doing the negotiating on behalf of AFGE, you’re in North Las Vegas, Nevada. How big is the team, and where did the members come from and how does that all work?

Linda Ward-Smith: So in North Las Vegas, we have about 3,000 employees and I preside over. Our bargaining team consisted of members all across the United States. So I was picked out of about 12 members, and I was fortunate to be an alternate, so I’m very thankful for that. We have over 200,000 members nationwide that we represent at the VA. So those are the people that we are trying to negotiate a fair contract for.

Tom Temin: And let’s talk about the clause with respect to promotions, for example, what you say that, you know, management wants to just impose their arbitrary ability, I guess, to promote who and how they wish. What did the old contract that got rolled over until it didn’t anymore, say about promotion?

Linda Ward-Smith: Right now, there are outlined steps that say that if there is a promotion on the table, that you first of all have to offer it to the most qualified, right, and that you cannot – and there are certain criteria such as if an employee is in a position and he has the knowledge and the skills and ability to be promoted, then he or she should earn that promotion, as long as they meet the criteria. And what management wanted to do is basically just say, even if they meet the criteria, we still want it to be management’s decision on if that employee gets that promotion, which of course, it should be management’s decision but it should also be based on criteria. If they meet the qualifications, why not give that employmee the promotion? They want all of that to be taken out and make it be management discretion regardless. So to me it’s just allowing managers to play favoritism to who they want to, who they don’t. And that is what unions are always fighting against. Now, we believe it’s fair and equitable, and I think that’s the way it should always be.

Tom Temin: And as this has dragged on, do you think it’s affected the day-to-day relationships between the staff and the AFGE members and managers just working in the halls and wards and offices of VA?

Linda Ward-Smith: Yeah, so right now, and I don’t know if you guys are aware of those executive orders that came out, but –

Tom Temin: Oh yeah!

Linda Ward-Smith: It pretty much tried to just do away with our agreement. And with those executive orders, they were implemented in January of 2020, which took us out of our office space. Now does not allow us to file grievances and fight for our members, and enforce the contract as we once did. So it has – those executive orders have weakened the union in a sense. And it just gives us kind of a description of what it will look like if we don’t have a contract. And right now we’re fighting and we’re trying to continue enforcing the contract, but they have taken some of those tools away with these executive orders. So just imagine if we don’t have a contract to enforce, because these orders are really just kind of shedding light on the fact that if we don’t have a contract, this is what it’s going to look like without us being able to fully negotiate and bargain on employees behalf. So management feel as if they have been given kryptonite, and more power over us just the fact that these executive orders have been implemented. It just kind of shows us what it will look like in the world of no fair contract, just based on these orders that have been implemented. I believe we no longer go to the table and negotiate like we used to. We no longer have labor management meetings. It’s no more partnership. It’s basically right now, “We say so, this is how it’s going to be,” and it is what it is.

Tom Temin: Has the lack of office space – have you been kicked out of the offices, say in North Las Vegas? And has that been a hindrance to daily operations and to negotiations?

Linda Ward-Smith: Yes, so back in January, we did get an order to vacate or pay rent. And currently, we are renting out space inside of the VA Medical Center in order for us to continue our operation, otherwise, we would have been kicked out. They’ve taken all of the equipment – no phones, no internet, all of that stuff we had to supply. But our contract does state that we will have equal office space, equal equipment as management. But right now, they’ve taken it all away. So that, again, is another violation of our contract that we currently have in existence that they just overlook.

Tom Temin: And how about the limits on official time? How has that affected you?

Linda Ward-Smith: I do all my work after hours, nights and weekends, and makes it very difficult to still, as the president, try to maintain and do the duties of a president. So I feel like it likens my ability to represent the employees effectively. But I’ve been creative. And you know, I take leave when I have to because you know, that’s what the orders state that I do. I have to take leave and set up meetings with management, and just try to continue on the role of the president to represent over 3,000 members. But it has been difficult. Although management can set up meetings and meet with employees to hand out disciplinary actions, I don’t have the same opportunity to represent them, as the law says that I can. So I just take the leave that I have to comply with those executive orders until change comes.

Tom Temin: But as president of the local you also have a full time job at VA.

Linda Ward-Smith: That is correct. I am a full-time nurse. I work eight hours a day. And then I in between do the representation duties on my lunch, my breaks, I take annual leave – whatever I have to do in order to continue this role that I signed up for.

Tom Temin: Well, anybody that messes with a nurse is going to have to mess with me. Linda Ward-Smith is president of Local 1224 of the American Federation of Government Employees in North Las Vegas. Thanks so much for joining me.

Linda Ward-Smith: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate you giving us the opportunity to tell the story.

Tom Temin: We did ask Veterans Affairs for an interview on this topic. It declined but wrote, “AFGE has consistently fought for the status quo, and opposed attempts to make VA work better for veterans and their families. It’s no surprise that AFGE has taken the same approach with its refusal to accept common sense improvements to its collective bargaining agreement. VA’s collective bargaining proposals, which have been negotiated for several months per AFGE approved ground rules are designed to ensure veterans come first in all that we do, and we look forward to working with AFGE to achieve that goal.” – again that statement from Veterans Affairs. We’ll post this interview at www.FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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