Veterans, VA employees rally against Trump’s workforce orders
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 25, 2018
WASHINGTON — Hundreds of federal employees, including some workers from the Department of Veterans Affairs, rallied Wednesday at about the same time a court case began to fight anti-union executive orders signed by President Donald Trump in May.
The executive orders, which went into effect this month, limit union employees’ ability to use official time, shorten collective bargaining negotiations and encourage agencies to fire employees, instead of merely disciplining them. The American Federation of Government Employees and other federal unions argue the orders are unconstitutional.
“What they’re trying to do is just going to devastate us,” said Don Hale, a Marine Corps veteran, Defense Department employee and chairman of AFGE’s Defense Conference. “We won’t stop fighting until these executive orders are gone.”
A case challenging Trump’s authority to restrict union representation started Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
In the park next to the courthouse, hundreds of federal employees wore red and held signs reading, “Proud Public Employee,” “Public Service Deserves Public Respect,” and “EO’s? Hell to the No,” among others. In addition to AFGE, others rallying were part of the National Treasury Employees Union, Communications Workers of America and the Association of Flight Attendants.
Some people in attendance held signs from National Nurses United that read “Union Nurses are Best for Vets.” National Nurses United represents nurses from 23 VA hospitals.
Lester Orellana, a 34-year-old Army veteran who served in Iraq, traveled to Washington from Philadelphia, where he works at a VA regional benefits office. He said he attended Wednesday to support his union, the American Federation of Government Employees.
“You know you have that extra protection there,” Orellana said of union representation. “You know that somebody’s going to have your back. Nobody is really going to take advantage of you without having somebody to fight for you first.”
Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., as well as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other lawmakers took the stage at the park to condemn the executive orders.
AFGE President J. David Cox called Trump’s administration a group of “union-busting thugs” who were “trying to destroy veterans’ health care and the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
Trump used changes at the VA last June as a blueprint for two of the executive orders that he signed in May. The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 created more repercussions and a quicker firing process for poor-performing VA employees. Advocates saw the new law as a way to root out a perceived culture of corruption at the VA, though some lawmakers are now concerned it’s being used to target low-level employees and retaliate against whistleblowers.
The VA announced Friday that it had started implementing one of Trump’s executive orders that goes further than the new law. It cuts down on official time — time used by union leaders to file grievances and talk about the work place. The order affects about 1,700 VA employees, the agency said.
“This executive order ensures the proper stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rourke said in a prepared statement. “The order offers reasonable standards for union representatives and makes clear that they should spend the majority of their duty hours on federal government work.”
The Government Accountability Office reported 346 VA workers spent 100 percent of their work time as union representatives in 2015. A White House fact sheet from May stated it had grown to 470 employees.
“Can you hold those employees accountable for a job they’re hired to do if they’re spending 100 percent of their time on union activity and not the taxpayer-funded job they were hired to do? The answer is no. It’s no,” Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, said last week at a hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
In 2017, Arrington introduced legislation to prohibit VA employees from spending more than 50 percent of their official time on union work. O’Rourke said, under the new executive order, employees would be limited to using 25 percent.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., a Marine Corps veteran, attended the union rally Wednesday. He expressed concerns that whistleblowers won’t feel protected enough with limited union representation to disclose wrongdoing within the VA.
“The way we’ve found out about VA problems has been through VA line employees coming forward,” Gallego said. “If they feel they can’t come forward without reprisal because their unions won’t able to protect them, the abuses are going to continue and basically be pushed underground.”
According to a document filed last week, Trump’s administration planned to argue in court Wednesday that the unions’ case is outside the authority of district courts and that challenges to the executive orders should fall to the Federal Labor Relations Authority and the courts of appeals.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., speaks at the American Federation of Government Employees rally in support of government employee unions on July 25, 2018. Gallego spoke of how important Veterans Affairs hospital workers were to him when he returned from deployment with the Marine Corps.
CAROLINE HURLEY/STARS AND STRIPES