The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some agencies resist Biden’s pro-labor orders, federal union says

President Biden has earned high marks from federal unions but leaders say some agencies are hanging onto former president Donald Trump’s antilabor rules. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
5 min

More than a year after Donald Trump lost the presidency, federal labor leaders are aggravated by how long it is taking to completely flush his influence from the government.

At the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) legislative conference this week, union officials were full of praise for President Biden but equally frustrated at the slow pace of change in two agencies. They also are furious at his administration’s controversial — though still preliminary — proposal to close some veterans health-care operations.

During Monday’s session of AFGE’s annual legislative conference, President Everett Kelley gushed about Biden’s strong relationship with the largest federal labor organization.

“While President Biden hasn’t given us everything we want, he’s already proven himself the most pro-union president of my lifetime,” Kelley told union members. “I’ve met with the president twice so far. That didn’t happen before with other U.S. presidents.”

He lauded “some big victories” under Biden — a long list that includes repealing “his predecessor’s anti-worker executive orders that threatened our collective bargaining rights, our ability to represent, and the fairness of the discipline system.”

With a partner in the White House, Kelley boasted, “this has been one of our most productive, successful years ever.”

Then came the “but” and the “betrayal.”

“But I’d be lying to you if I said every promise has been kept,” Kelley continued, “at least, not at the VA.”

He is upset with recommendations in VA’s Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission report. They were developed “by asking ourselves one question above all else: what’s best for the Veterans we serve,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement when releasing the document March 14.

He got the question right but the answer wrong in AFGE’s view.

Under the recommendations, which must survive a lengthy approval process, the number of VA medical centers would drop to 168 from 171, community-based outpatient clinics to 469 from 555 and other outpatient services clinics to 169 from 255, as my colleague Lisa Rein reported. The restructuring also calls for a 56 percent increase in multi-specialty community-based outpatient clinics and jumping the number of stand-alone community living centers from two to 29.

Fighting suggestions to close Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities, he added, “is our number one, our immediate priority.”

Closing the facilities, Kelley complained, “is a betrayal of our veterans and our brothers and sisters who work in the VA. And it’s a betrayal of all of us, because VA closures replace the care our members provide with private care that costs more and leaves veterans with worse health outcomes.”

While the process started under Trump, when Congress approved legislation requiring VA’s infrastructure review, Kelley blasted the Biden administration, saying that “now we have a hit list from the secretary, and it is very aggressive, very destructive.”

Later, by email, Kelley said McDonough “should have insisted that the VA’s recommendations account for the effects of a nearly two-year-long pandemic” and rejected any closures because they “will only result in more veterans being forced into private, for-profit care where they will pay more for worse outcomes.” Kelley wants VA to “focus exclusively on expanding and improving VA facilities in every location.”

Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja told the gathering by video that federal employees should “go to work every day for a federal government that serves as a model employer.” But for AFGE, two agencies in particular, the Education Department and the Social Security Administration, don’t meet that mark.

AFGE leaders criticized officials there for continuing to act like Trump’s anti-union edicts remain in effect, despite Biden’s policies to the contrary.

“You still have those holdovers from the previous administration,” Kelley told reporters, “that just don't want to give up any form of authority.”

Social Security officials continue to pursue an “aggressive anti-union/anti-employee bargaining approach … undoubtedly directed by the Trump orders,” said an email from Rich Couture, AFGE’s spokesman on Social Security.

Among the current Social Security polices Couture cited as “antithetical” to Biden’s agenda are “draconian official time cuts” and the “elimination and reduction of union office space nationwide, which similarly limits our ability to represent and access employees, especially now with reentry at agency installations now starting.” Official time allows union leaders to represent workers in limited ways, such as grievance procedures, while on government time.

A Social Security statement said it “complied with all of the administration’s labor policies and is fully committed to positive relations with our labor partners. Last year, we offered to renegotiate major provisions of our collective bargaining agreements with all three of our unions. Two of our unions accepted and we are currently in contract negotiations with them. AFGE did not accept that offer and is pursuing arbitration to revoke the entire 2019 contract.”

AFGE officials say the Education Department also is antithetical to Biden’s leadership and has not improved management-labor relations in several significant ways. On their list is the agency’s failure to bargain a new contract, to negotiate telework policy, to honor dues withholding and to approve official time.

In response, the department declared itself in “full embrace” of Biden’s pro-union agenda and said it “has taken deliberate actions to substantially alter a number of our major policies to be more employee friendly,” while “enhancing how we engage with our Union partner.”

That’s happening too slowly for union leaders.

“We are in settlement discussions and are hopeful for resolution,” said Cathie McQuiston, AFGE’s deputy general counsel. “But having these large number of issues drag on into year two of the Biden administration doesn’t exactly convey a sense of urgency.”