VA protests

Nancy Bryant and others from the American Federation of Government Employees union protested Wednesday outside the VA building in Temple.

Saving the future of the Veterans Administration, and securing fair contracts for workers at these hospitals, was the topic of a protest Wednesday afternoon in front of Temple’s Veteran Affairs hospital.

Members of Temple’s local branch of the American Federation of Government Employees union were the ones leading the protest. More than 20 participants gathered in front of the hospital complex, chanting and holding signs in opposition to moves made by the Veteran’s Administration.

An effort by the Department of Veterans Administration to renegotiate some elements of the union’s agreement with the VA is the main reason for these protests.

Former VA worker Nancy Bryant said the proposed changes are an effort by the current administration to try and break unions by making it harder for workers.

“This proposed contract is a union-busting move made by (Veteran Affairs) Secretary (Robert) Wilkie, acting under the guidance of the current administration,” Bryant said. “They are proposing to make it so local grievances cannot be grieved locally anymore, any kind of grievance would have to take it to Washington. What local could afford that?”

The VA website said “proposals include a number of significant changes designed to improve medical care, customer service and staff accountability while maximizing value for taxpayers.”

Among those proposals were reducing taxpayer-funded union time for VA union employees from “more than one million hours per year to 10,000 hours per year — redirecting more than $48 million per year back to direct services and medical care for veterans.”

Most of the protestors not only see this crackdown as a union issue, but also as an issue that veterans will have to deal with.

This view is because of what they perceive the department doing in regards to the Veterans Administration’s 50,000 vacancies. Current VA clerk and protester Charles Kabrich said that instead of filling those positions, officials are getting private companies to do the work instead of hiring more employees.

“We’re shrinking, and because we have shrunk we don’t have enough people to cover the beds,” Kabrich said. “Instead of hiring additional staff so we can give care to our veterans, they are just closing beds. The whole time we are sending people across the street to get contract work done. It’s taxpayer’s dollars at a higher rate than what they could be getting here at the VA.”

The VA website, however, claimed the proposal would streamline the hiring and job classification process — potentially reducing the time it takes to hire certain positions by weeks or months.

Both Kabrich and Bryant see this move to weaken their union as just another step towards the elimination of the VA and the switch towards private medical facilities.

“All of the employees here (at this hospital) are going to be under attack if this contract comes out like that,” Kabrich said. “Everyone thinks that (the administration) is trying to kill the union but it is more than that, they are trying to kill the VA.”

VA Secretary Wilkie was quoted on the VA website, saying, “With VA facing thousands of vacancies, these proposals could add more than one million man-hours per year back into our work force — a vital influx of resources that would make an almost immediate difference for veterans and the employees who care for them. These proposals make clear that service to veterans must come first in all that we do, and I look forward to working with AFGE to ensure we achieve that goal.”