Further poisoning the Trump administration’s already noxious relationship with federal labor organizations, the Department of Veterans Affairs has rejected parts of collective-bargaining agreements with four unions.

The heading on a memorandum sent to union leaders is blunt: “Notice of Repudiation.”

Repudiation is a harsh word apropos of President Trump’s approach to federal unions. The notice is a warning to labor leaders across the government.

VA will unilaterally refuse “official time” for certain VA health-care workers, effective next Thursday. Under official time, federal employees who are agency union leaders may perform certain duties, on a full- or part-time basis, while being paid by the agency. “Official time” is a term in law, but the administration disparagingly calls it “taxpayer-funded union work.”

“Union work,” however, is misleading. Federal law excludes the “internal business of a labor organization” from official time. That includes recruiting members, collecting dues and holding union elections. Filing grievances for all staffers in a bargaining unit, even those who are not union members, is allowed. Participating in discussions on topics of general interest to the workforce, such as safety and productivity, also is permitted.

J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees and a former VA nurse, denounced VA’s move, calling it “a grave disservice to our nation’s veterans.” Using official time, he said, union leaders “have blown the whistle on waitlist scandals, fought back against the gender pay disparity, and brought to light the rampant understaffing throughout the VA.”

While 430 VA employees will be taken off official time, a department news release says “the repudiation will apply to all of VA’s nearly 104,000 title 38 employees, eliminating all forms of taxpayer-funded union work” for physicians, dentists, podiatrists, chiropractors, optometrists, registered nurses, physician assistants and expanded-duty dental auxiliaries.

“It’s common sense,” Jacquelyn Hayes-Byrd, VA acting assistant secretary for human resources and administration, said in a statement. “Allowing health care workers to do taxpayer-funded union work instead of serving Veterans impacts patient care negatively."

VA’s announcement carries important implications that go well beyond the agency’s walls. The repudiation notice is in line with Trump’s three union-bashing executive orders, one of which called for sharp restrictions on official time. But key elements of the May 25 directives have been blocked by a federal court decision the administration is appealing. The administration’s action seeks to accomplish part what it could not do, at least so far, by executive order.

Furthermore, if the administration gets away with this unilateral action at VA, there would be nothing to stop similar moves at other agencies.

Union leaders plan to fight VA’s action in court.

“We are shocked that the Trump Administration would try take unilateral action like this to undermine VA employee unions after being so thoroughly blocked by the courts on these matters just a couple months ago,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “In our view, this action from the VA is a clear violation of the law and the court order blocking implementation of President Trump’s anti-union executive orders. … NFFE will be seeking immediate intervention from the Courts on this matter.” The other unions affected are the National Association of Government Employees and National Nurses United.

VA argues its move is separate from the executive orders.

Under federal law, “employees may not utilize official time when it negatively impacts patient care,” said Curt Cashour, VA’s press secretary. “This action has nothing to do with any executive orders.”

Congressional reaction fell along party lines.

Republican Phil Roe (Tenn.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was in lockstep with the administration. “Chairman Roe supports the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) action to limit the amount of time that VA employees can spend on taxpayer funded union time,” said a statement issued by his office. “… Dr. Roe’s number one concern is that veterans are receiving the care and support they deserve. It is imperative that taxpayer funded dollars are not being wasted and that the doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals at VA are doing the jobs they were hired to do so veterans are able to receive timely and quality care.” House Republicans have long targeted official time.

Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on government operations, warned the administration that it will not be allowed to violate the law. “When Congress enacted the Civil Service Reform Act, Congress found that, ‘labor organizations and collective bargaining in the civil service are in the public interest.’ Official time is authorized by law, negotiated by agency management with the union, and is intended to promote the peaceable resolution of disputes and the efficient operation of government. Congress carefully crafted a collective bargaining system for the federal government that balanced the interests of the agencies, federal employees, and the American public.

“This administration cannot eviscerate United States law by fiat.”

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