Union’s ‘hit list’ draws managers’ fury at VA

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7:30 AM on August 20, 2015 to include excerpts from Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald’s response to AFGE Local 17 President Bill Preston.

Groups representing managers at the Veterans Affairs Department have asked Congress to investigate a “hit list” created by VA’s largest labor union.

A report compiled by the American Federation of Government Employees names managers and executives that the union recommends for discipline, according to the Washington Post.

It “threatens to further destabilize labor-management relations at a department that has faced serious challenges in recent years,” Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, and Pat Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association, wrote Tuesday in a letter to four congressional committees that oversee the VA and federal workforce.

“While federal unions, including AFGE, frequently tout positive and collaborative labor-management relations as an important component of fostering an environment that lets all federal employees produce and contribute to their agency missions to the maximum extent possible (a view with which we agree), this unprecedented maneuver suggests AFGE thinks otherwise,” Bonosaro and Niehaus wrote.

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They asked the committees to find out what criteria AFGE used to compile the list. They also questioned whether union representatives who work for the VA did it during work hours.

“[T]o our knowledge, official time does not cover a union investigating agency managers and executives for the purposes of creating a hit list of those it seeks to have removed from the agency,” they wrote.

“Official time” permits federal employees to count union activities as government work.  It has come under fire in the Republican-dominated Congress.  Two lawmakers have proposed bills to ban the practice, calling it a waste of taxpayer dollars. The Government Accountability Office said the government paid $157.2 million to employees on official time in fiscal 2012.

“Official time should be used with great care and this letter raises even more questions about how AFGE is using taxpayer resources,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in a statement. He said he would review all the documents related to the VA situation.

Neither AFGE nor the VA has given a copy of the report to the managers’ groups. SEA lobbyist Jason Briefel said his group had filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the VA earlier this week.

AFGE Local 17 President Bill Preston, who gave the report to VA Secretary Bob McDonald, similarly rejected Federal News Radio’s request for a copy.

“The Secretary needs to be given a fair opportunity to respond to this confidential report and that would be undermined if it were broadly disseminated at this time,” he wrote in an email.

Preston said he had not spoken to McDonald since giving him the report on July 23, but the VA gave Federal News Radio excerpts of the letter McDonald sent Preston upon receiving the report.

In it, McDonald said VA is taking steps to foster accountability and restore the public’s trust.

“Where performance or conduct issues warrant removal…VA takes appropriate action to terminate employment whether that employee is part of the Senior Executive Service, or the civil service workforce,” he wrote.

Congress has accused McDonald of failing to punish those responsible for fudging patient wait times in a widespread scandal last year.  In response, McDonald repeatedly has said that the department is holding employees accountable for misconduct. In town hall meetings, McDonald has asked employees to come forward with information.

“This VA is strongly committed to protecting the rights of all its employees to work in an environment free from discrimination and harassment,” he wrote in the letter to Preston.

The finger-pointing threatens to further fracture the department’s workforce just as Congress considers legislation that would overhaul personnel practices at VA, including stripping employees of job protections they now have.

Miller, the bill’s sponsor, said it also would increase oversight of union activities at the department.

“The VA Accountability Act of 2015 would require the GAO to conduct an independent study of VA time, space and resources devoted to labor union activities,” he said. “This is yet another example of why a 3rd party investigation is needed to find the best practices and the trouble spots in VA’s current labor system.”

The bill passed the House last month but faces Democratic opposition in the Senate. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto it.

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