Head of Largest VA Union Urges Lawmakers to Protect Workers’ Representation Rights
Use of official time by union representatives results in better care for veterans, AFGE leader says
WASHINGTON – The head of the largest union representing federal and D.C government workers today urged Congress and the Trump administration to protect the decades-old right of employees to have fair representation at the worksite.
In testimony delivered today before two House subcommittees, American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. said employee representatives at the Department of Veterans Affairs have used the process called official time to work with employees and managers to resolve disputes, address issues of discrimination and retaliation, and effect improvements in the workplace that benefit veterans.
“Our members’ only goal is to deliver excellent care and services to our nation’s veterans,” Cox said in his prepared testimony before the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity and the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations.
“Excellent, highly satisfied and dedicated employees are the VA’s most important resource and reasonable amounts of official time allows employees to participate directly in agency decisions that affect them.”
By law, federal employee unions are required to represent all employees in the bargaining unit, not just those who choose to pay dues. For this reason, Congress established official time in 1978 to ensure that all workers receive fair representation whether they belong to the union or not.
Employees are allowed to use official time only to perform representational activities, such as setting procedures that protect employees from on-the-job injuries, enforcing protections from unlawful discrimination, creating fair promotion procedures, establishing flexible work hours, developing telework practices, providing workers with a voice in determining working conditions, and representing employees in grievances and disciplinary actions.
Union representatives are not allowed to use official time to conduct union-specific business such as organizing new members, holding internal union meetings, electing union officers, or engaging in partisan political activities.
“We take very seriously both our legal obligation to represent all members of our bargaining units, and the legal prohibitions against engaging in non-representational activities,” Cox said in his prepared statement. “AFGE representatives know the difference and act accordingly.”
Indeed, a recent Government Accountability Office report into the use of official time at the VA makes no suggestion or allegation of union wrongdoing regarding the use of official time. In fact, the report cites numerous examples of employee representatives using official time to improve employee-management relations, address emergent or chronic workplace issues, and improve the services that veterans receive.
The use of official time is subject to caps that are negotiated between agencies and federal unions under the collective bargaining process. Under AFGE’s current contract with the VA, local union officials can use no more than 4.25 hours per bargaining unit employee per calendar year times the number of employees entitled to representation in the bargaining unit.
President Cox rejected the argument by those opposed to any union representation in the federal workplace that the VA’s chronic understaffing problems could be solved by ending official time and returning those employees to their agency jobs fulltime.
According to the GAO report, the use of official time reported by the VA amounted to 2.7 hours per employee in 2015, well below the maximum allowed under the contract, and was equivalent to no more than 508 full-time employees out of a workforce of 350,000 – or one-tenth of one percent. The VA currently has a shortage of 45,000 workers.
“To place the blame for VA understaffing on this small element of the Department’s operations is ludicrous,” Cox said.
“Participation of employees’ elected representatives in improving the VA and adding value to VA and the whole federal government needs to continue so we can all accomplish the goal of providing the best services. We urge Congress and the Administration not to undermine a system that has a proven track record of success in improving government.”
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is the largest federal employee union, representing 700,000 workers in the federal government and the government of the District of Columbia. AFGE represents more than 220,000 employees in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
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