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Bill limiting VA union activity draws protest from Democrats, unions at House committee hearing

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 17, 2017

WASHINGTON — Despite strong protest from Democrats, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs pushed forward legislation Wednesday to limit the time that Department of Veterans Affairs employees spend working for their unions on the job.

The committee shot down several amendments from Democratic members, who argued union time was valuable and the bill wouldn’t do much to provide more care to veterans, as its supporters claim. Yet the committee voted 13-11 to pass HR 1461, which would prohibit VA employees from spending more than 50 percent of their work time on union activities. Employees who work directly with patients would be limited to 25 percent.

“This bill … will go a long way in restoring confidence in VA,” said Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas. “It will give the secretary the tools to change the culture of the VA.”

The legislation now advances to the full House.

J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said he believes a House vote is not likely. The committee vote was split along party lines, other than one Republican — Rep. Mike Bost of Illinois — who voted against it.

“I think it will struggle to see the light of day in the House,” Cox said. “I believe there are other Republicans that will see it as an attack on [the federation] and labor in the VA.”

The American Federation of Government Employees is a union representing approximately 220,000 VA workers. In written testimony, the union called the bill “misguided” and “union bashing.” Along with the union’s leadership, a few dozen union members in union T-shirts gathered in the committee room Wednesday to show their opposition.

In written testimony, the federation said the bill was intended “to break the back of the union and undermine federal employees’ right to representation.”

Two other unions — National Nurses United and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — submitted written testimony against the bill.

Besides limiting union time, the bill would allow VA employees to opt out of their union membership at any time. Federal employees are allowed to opt out now only during their renewal period.

Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., also added an amendment Wednesday preventing registered nurses from becoming union officials.

Cox called the amendment a “poison pill” and alleged it was an “attack on women,” asserting most registered nurses are female.

“There’s greater restrictions on being able to resolve problems and disputes and how you get the voices of rank-and-file employees,” Cox said of the bill.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the committee, contended the bill was “not a Republican attack on unions.”

Arrington introduced the bill in March, following findings from the Government Accountability Office that the VA doesn’t accurately record the amount of time employees spend on union business. Arrington especially took issue with a finding that 346 employees spent 100 percent of their work time as union representatives in fiscal 2015.

Union activity at the VA has come under increased scrutiny since 2014, when the Office of Personnel Management issued findings that VA employees spent nearly 1.1 million hours on union activities in 2012 – more than any other federal agency.

The GAO issued another report this year that detailed weaknesses in VA’s human resources office. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., argued some of the union work that VA employees were doing filled gaps in what the human resources office wasn’t accomplishing.

Walz also said it was debatable how much impact the legislation would have on providing more care to veterans. Of the 346 employees who spent 100 percent of their time on union activities, he said, three of them were health care providers who could work directly with patients.

“You’ve chosen an issue, I think, [that] is incredibly misunderstood,” he said.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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